Fifty Years Ago: Category 5 Hurricane Camille Hits Mississippi

August 16, 2019, 3:17 PM EDT

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Above: A boat hurled into a house in Biloxi, Mississippi by the storm surge of Hurricane Camille in 1969. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library.

This weekend is the 50th anniversary of the infamous Hurricane Camille—one of only five Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded to hit the United States at Category 5 strength. On the night of August 17, 1969, Camille smashed into the Mississippi coast with incredible fury, bringing the largest U.S. storm surge on record—an astonishing 24.6 feet in Pass Christian, Mississippi (a record since surpassed by Hurricane Katrina's unimaginable 27.8' storm surge in Pass Christian in 2005.) After landfall, Camille barreled up the East Coast and dumped prodigious rains of 12 - 20 inches, with isolated amounts up to 31" over Virginia and West Virginia, with most of the rain falling in just 3 - 5 hours. The resulting catastrophic flash flooding killed 113 people, bringing Camille's total death toll to 256 and making it the 15th deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Hurricane Camille
Figure 1. Hurricane Camille as seen on Sunday, August 17, 1969, about eight hours before making landfall on the Mississippi coast. At the time, Camille was a peak-strength Category 5 storm with 175 mph winds. Image credit: NOAA/NCDC.

Camille’s landfall pressure of 900 mb puts it in second place behind the 892 mb pressure of the Great 1935 Labor Day Hurricane in the Florida Keys for second lowest landfall pressure on record. In NHC's original historical database, Camille made landfall with 190 mph winds, tying the storm with Super Typhoon Haiyan (in 2013 in the Philippines) for the strongest winds at landfall of any tropical cyclone in recorded history, globally. However, Camille's landfall intensity was based on visual observations of the sea state from a hurricane hunter aircraft--a technique that is very inexact. Furthermore, comparison with other Category 5 hurricanes called into question Camille's assumed intensity during the final 24-hour period before landfall.

Camille radar

Figure 2. WSR-57 radar image of Hurricane Camille from New Orleans at 1732 UTC 17 August 1969. Concentric eyewalls are seen, indicating an eyewall replacement cycle was underway. Check out this impressive 78-frame radar animation of Hurricane Camille's landfall the authors put together as part of the Supplementary Materials for the 2016 article on Hurricane Camille. This is probably the earliest radar animation of a hurricane ever constructed.

Thanks to a reanalysis effort by Margie Kieper of Florida International University and Chris Landsea and Jack Beven of NHC, published in 2016 in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Camille has been officially downgraded to 175 mph winds at landfall. The re-analysis puts Camille in second place for the strongest landfalling hurricane in U.S. history, behind the Great 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, which reanalysis showed had 185 mph winds at landfall. The only other Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes at landfall in the U.S. have been Hurricane Michael of 2018 (160 mph winds and a central pressure of 919 mb in the Florida Panhandle), Hurricane Andrew of 1992 (165 mph winds and a 922 mb central pressure in South Florida) and the 1928 “San Felipe” Hurricane (160 mph winds and a 931 mb central pressure in Puerto Rico.) Category 5 hurricanes have maximum sustained winds of 157 mph or greater.

It is now realized that as Camille closed in on the Mississippi coast, the hurricane underwent an eyewall replacement cycle (ERC)—a common occurrence in intense hurricanes whereby the eye of the storm contracts and grows unstable and collapses. The importance of the ERC—the cycle of temporary weakening followed by reintensification as the ERC completes and the new outer eyewall contracts—was not fully understood back in 1969, and would not be until a 1982 paper by Willoughby et al.

Camille could no longer support its tiny 11-mile diameter eye when the storm was over the central Gulf of Mexico, and a concentric larger-diameter eye formed around the inner eyewall, resulting in a weakening of the hurricane to a high-end Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds. A hurricane hunter flight during this period reported a clear area that was possibly a moat that separated the inner and outer eyewalls: "Just as we were near the [eye] wall cloud we suddenly broke into a clear area and could see the sea surface below," the copilot, Robert Lee Clark, wrote in 1982. The concentric eyewall structure was also clearly seen on radar images (Figure 2). After completing the ERC, Camille was able to strengthen to a Category 5 storm with 175 mph winds in the twelve hours before landfall.

Strongest trpoical cyclones at landfall
Figure 3. The strongest tropical cyclones at landfall in world history, according to data from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC). Ominously, 7 of the 10 strongest landfalls in recorded history have occurred since 2006. Note that NHC supplies specific landfall intensity data, while the JTWC does not. Thus, the JTWC landfall intensities above are from the last 6-hourly position point of the tropical cyclone before landfall. Hurricane Camille's winds at landfall--175 mph--stand in elevnth place on the list.

The 1969 Hurricane Camille Hurricane Party: It Never Happened

As Hurricane Camille roared towards the Mississippi coast on the night of August 17, 1969, 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, Mississippi 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, U.S.M.C." fame), Larry Hagman ("Dallas"), Martin Milner ("Adam-12"), and Michael Learned ("The Waltons"), 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."

Richelieu Apartments before Camille
Richelieu Apartments after Camille
Figure 4. 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 (which I also appear in), 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.

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 finishing up 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 website.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology at the University of Michigan. He worked for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990 as a flight meteorologist.

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