The 1969 Hurricane Camille Hurricane Party: It Never Happened
On the night of August 17, 1969, Hurricane Camille roared towards the Mississippi coast with sustained winds of an incredible 175 mph. Residents all along the coast fled the wrath of this mighty Category 5 hurricane, but a few unfortunate holdouts chose to ride the storm out rather than evacuate. Legend has it that many of the 23 residents of the infamous Richelieu Manor Apartments in Pass Christian who chose to stay held a hurricane party, in defiance of the hurricane's might (and common sense!) An ABC TV made for TV movie called Hurricane, starring Frank Sutton (of Gomer Pyle USMC fame), Larry Hagman (of Dallas fame), Martin Milner, and Michael Learned, was loosely based on the supposed hurricane party. Legendary TV anchorman Walter Cronkite perpetuated the hurricane party story during one of his broadcasts after the hurricane. As the camera panned over the cement slab littered with debris that marked the former location of the Richelieu Apartments, Cronkite narrated:
"This is the site of the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi. This is the place where 23 people laughed in the face of death. And where 23 people died."
Figure 1. The Richelieu Manor Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi before Hurricane Camille (top) and after (bottom.) Image credit: NOAA photo library.
Camille pushed its record 24.7-foot storm surge through Pass Christian, completely leveling the Richelieu Apartments. The 1989 PBS NOVA show, Hurricane, interviewed Mary Ann Gerlach, who claimed to be the lone survivor of the ill-fated hurricane party. She provided lurid details of the booze and pills at the party, after which she and her sixth husband fell asleep in their second-floor apartment. When Camille's storm surge smashed through, the building disintegrated, and she landed in the chaotic sea. Gerlach survived by clinging to pieces of floating debris and furniture. Gerlach, however, was not exactly a reliable witness. In 1982, when on trial for murdering her 11th husband, Gerlach's lawyer used an insanity defense, claiming her Camille experience and the resulting drug and alcohol abuse caused her to kill. She was found guilty, sentenced to life in prison, and paroled in 1992.
Figure 2. A boat driven inland by Hurricane Camille's record storm surge in Mississippi. Image credit: NOAA photo library.
According to an article published in 2000 by Mississippi Sun Herald reporter Kat Bergeron (kindly forwarded to me by Dr. Patrick Fitzpatrick, Mississippi State University professor and author of Hurricanes: A Reference Handbook), watching Cronkite's broadcast was Josephine Duckworth, whose 24-year-old son had ridden out the storm in the Richelieu Apartments. Her husband, Hubert Duckworth, certain that their son had been killed, headed down to Pass Christian the next day to claim their son's body. Hubert Duckworth encountered Mike Gannon, who had also ridden out the storm in the Richelieu Apartments.
"Where can I find my son's body?" the father asked.
"Why, Ben Duckworth isn't dead," Gannon told him. "I've seen him, and he's all right."
Indeed, father was reunited with son. And, according to survivor Ben Duckworth, only 8 out of the 23 residents of the Richelieu Apartments died in the storm, and the hurricane party never happened. Duckworth recounted,
"We were exhausted from boarding up windows and helping the police move cars. We were too tired to party. I cannot tell you why the story persists, or why people didn't put two and two together. I guess the hurricane party makes a good story." While he was boarding up and helping others prepare for the storm, a traveling salesman that some residents knew stopped by the complex. "Let's get some beer and have a hurricane party," the salesman said. "We were too exhausted. and when he couldn't find any takers, he got in his car and headed toward New Orleans," Duckworth remembered. "That probably saved his life, but I've wondered if that man isn't the origin of the legend. Maybe someone heard him and thought the party really happened."
Former Wunderblogger Margie Kieper, now working on her Ph.D. in hurricane science at Florida International University, has researched the party myth, and had this to add:
"The building was a designated civil defense shelter. One of the survivors interpreted that to mean he thought it was built with steel beams, but it was stick built. The sheriff did come by several times and ask them to evacuate, but the landlord convinced them it would be safe to stay. The young guys had promised to stay and look after some of the older people. They spent the day helping the landlord get the property ready, like boarding all the first floor windows with sheets of plywood (for a building that size you can imagine how much work that was!) After that and moving furniture upstairs to the second and third floor vacant apartments, they were all pretty exhausted. They had also helped ferry the residents back and forth to get all their cars parked in a different location where they believed the cars would be safe from surge. There were older people in the apartments including at least one in a wheelchair. The younger men tried to look after the older people. They were simply sheltering the storm and made a bad choice. Eight people in the building died and six lived. The building held a lot more than 23 residents."
More details on the experiences of the Richelieu Apartments survivors can be found at the passchristian.net website.
Our next post will be on Friday.
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
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