Hurricane Camille A Powerful But Forgotten Lesson


Ocean Going Ships Were No Match for Hurricane Camille Aug. 17, 1969

Before Katrina, There Was Hurricane Camille

On This Date in History:  Hurricane is the name given for tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic.  Tropical Cyclones  form in various parts of the globe but are most frequent in the Western Pacific, where they gain the moniker of Typhoon.  While the annual frequency in the North Atlantic is well below the number expected in the Western Pacific, the very fact of their destructive potential is sufficient for there to be a close study of the storms as they relate to the United States.  By the early 20th century, Americans are used to seeing satellite loops and expert analysis with forecast tracks on television.  While the exact landfall and intensity forecast is not always perfect, everyone in a given area is well informed about the prospects for their area regarding any tropical cyclone activity.  But, it wasn’t all that long ago that none of that was available. 

The Forecast Track For Hurricane Camille Missed the Mark-We've Come a Long Way Since 1969

blahHurricane satellite tracking technology was first developed in 1960, so it has not been available for all that long.  Prior to satellites, the only way that meteorologists could know that a hurricane was approaching was from ship reports.  But, ships tend to try to avoid big storms so the information available was relatively limited.  That meant that the forecast success rate was limited.  The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was officially forecast by the US Weather Bureau to go up the east coast of the United States.  Meteorologist Isaac Cline in Galveston was convinced the storm was approaching Southeast Texas while his bosses in Washington kept saying otherwise.  So, the advent of satellite technology was a huge step forward in tracking storms.  The first hurricane to be tracked continuously by satellite was a rather ominous one:  Hurricane Camille.  In just 3 days it would grow from a tropical storm to become the most powerful force on the face of the earth and the storm of the century.

Hurricane Katrina Made Landfall in Almost The Identical Location As Hurricane Camille 36 Years Earlier

Camille came off the African coast as a tropical wave and progressed across the Atlantic.  On August 9, 1969 it was reported as a disturbance nearly 500 miles east of the Leeward Islands.  Five days later, it was determined that it had a circulation  near the Cayman Islands with a central pressure of 29.50″ or 999 mb and it gained the name of Tropical Storm Camille.  A day later, it was southest of Cape San Antonio, Cuba and it’s pressure had dropped to 991mb or 29.26″ of mercury.  The maximum winds were estimated to be 115 mph and Camille was designated as a hurricane.  Now, the forecast had called for the storm to make a landfall in the Florida panhandle.  But, hurricane forecastinig was in its infancy and, again, this was the first storm to be tracked by satellite.  So, the level of experience using such techniques was limited.  The forecast track versus the actual track had a much larger degree of error than we have today.   Even today,  the intensity forecast is extremely difficult so, back in 1969, the experts had their hands full in that regard.  By the 16th of August, Hurricane Camille had moved North-Northwest into the Gulf of Mexico and its central pressure dropped to 905 mb or 26.72″ of mercury.  At that time, it was the lowest central pressure ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico and one of the lowest ever recorded for a tropical cyclone anywhere in the world. 

Fishing Boats Became Common Yard Decorations

On August 17, 1969 Hurricane Camille was about 250 miles South of Mobile Alabama with maximum surface wind speeds estimated to be in excess of 200 mph.  Hurricane Camille was significantly more powerful than Hurricane Katrina.   At 11:30 pm on this date in 1969, Hurricane Camille made landfall near Bay  St. Louis, MS.  Hurricane Katrina had a remarkably similar path as Camille.  Remember, Hurricane Katrina did not hit New Orleans; Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi in nearly the same location as Hurricane Camille 36 years before. 

Destruction Level Map As a Result of Camille

When Camille made landfall, the guage at the west end of the Bay St. Louis bridge registered 909 mb or 26.85 inches of mercury.  That represented the second lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the United States; a 1935 Labor Day Hurricane in the Florida Keys checked in with 892 mb or 26.35″.   Hurricane Andrew registered 922 mb at landfall near Miami in 1992 and I believe that Katrina checked in at 920 mb when it was offshore but had a considerably higher central pressure at landfall.   Extreme winds associated with such low pressure make measuring velocity difficult as anemometers tend to blow away or power supplies to measuring devices often fail.  But, the SS Cristobal anchored in Pilottown, LA estimated winds of 160 mph.  Overall, maximum sustained winds estimated for Hurricane Camille were estimated to be 180 to 190 mph with gusts of 210 to 220 mph.  Keep in mind that a tornado designated as EF-4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale has winds of 166-200 mph.  The highest rating for a tornado on the EF scale is EF-5 with winds of over 200 mph.  Hurricane Camille was much larger than any tornado yet its top winds approached those of the most destructive tornado. 

Top computer generated image shows new eyewall forming around contracting old eyewall; bottom shows new eyewall

While Katriana and Camille both were category 5 hurricanes on the Saffir Simpson Scale at one time, Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a category 3 hurricane with winds of 125 mph.   Camille slammed the coast at full fury.  It is very rare for a hurricane to make landfall in the United States as a category 5 hurricane.  Only Camille in 1969, Andrew in 1992(FL landfall) and the unnamed Florida Keys Hurricane in 1935 hold such a distinction on the list of most intense hurricane to strike the United States.  While it is uncertain why several storms have weakened prior to landfall, I believe part of the reason is happenstance.  It is very difficult for a hurricane to maintain maximum strength for long.  Absolute perfect conditions must exist for a hurricane to reach such a level and as time goes by, those conditions change.  Also, there is a natural life-cycle to a tropical cyclone in which, when it reaches its top strength, there is something called an eyewall replacement cycle.  The initial eyewall collapses toward the center and a new eyewall forms.  During this process, the central pressure will tend to rise and the winds decrease.  Hurricane Katrina was in the midst of an eyewall replacement cycle when it made landfall which is why it did not hit Mississippi at maximum intensity.   However, it has been my  observation that when a hurricane goes through the cycle, the energy gets expanded from the center and so, while the winds at the core may be decreased, winds at the extremities seem to be stronger than normally anticipated.  In the case of Katrina, the winds near Mobile at Dauphin Island, AL were clocked at 105 mph; that is not much of a lapse from the maximum winds. 

Storm Surge Map Hurricane Camille 1969

Storm surge take time to react to changes in wind speed.  So, while the pressure rose and winds fell off with Katrina, the forward momentum of the storm in conjunction with the storms previous winds of 175 mph resulted in a storm surge consistent with a category 5 hurricane and not a category 3.  I’ve never done a study on the subject before, but I hypothesize that the part of the United States perhaps most vulnerable to a high storm surge is the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  As we have seen with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the water gets very deep very quickly off the coast.  The Deepwater Horizon was located only about 65 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River but it was in some 5000 feet of water.  The area is known as the Mississippi Canyon and depths just off the mouth of the Mississippi River approach 10,000 feet in some spots.  Conversely, the Mississippi Bay is extremely shallow.  So, when the volume of water shoved up from the Gulf comes ashore in Mississippi, it is trapped by the bay and has nowhere to go but up.  With Hurricane Camille, a maximum storm surge of 24.6 feet was recorded near Pass Christian, MS. 

Most of Metairie Was Not As Fortunate As My Aunt

I have family in New Orleans. I was born there.  I know the city.  On the Friday prior to Katrina’s landfall, I called my aunt in Metairie and told her that the storm would hit Mississippi; I told her if I was wrong, then it would be farther east.  The laws of physics and atmospheric conditions told me that it would not hit New Orleans.  However, I warned her that I could not be certain if they would not get affected by the western eyewall or how the levees would hold.  I suggested that she go visit my parents in Houston.  She was reluctant, saying that her house was 8 feet above see level on the Metairie Ridge and that her house never flooded.  I reminded her that, be that as it may, she would be out of power for weeks and nothing would be more miserable than being in New Orleans with no air conditioner.  She finally relented on Sunday and it took her 18 hours.  As it turns out, she was right.  Her home had little or no damage.  Just a mile or so down the road, the homes not on the ridge were irrepairably flooded. 

Click on Map for Times-Picayune Slide Show of Katrina New Orleans Flooding

You see, while New Orleans was not hit by a hurricane and did not receive the full storm surge and Katrina could not match the intensity of Hurricane Camille, it was a much larger storm.  The push of the water to the west,  was enhanced initially by the large wind field and the east wind ahead of Katrina.  As the storm went by the progression of the surge that led to the flooding of New Orleans continued with additional surge that went up Lake Borgne, through the Intercoastal Waterway and toward the Industrial Canal.  I speculate that the surge of Katrina was greater than Camille due to its size.  The surge along the Mississippi Coast was between 20 and 30 feet.  I know for sure, that I told Snow  White on Sunday night prior to Katrina’s landfall that “alot of people are going to die tonight.”  I know that I told my friend and co-anchor, Steve Burgin, the same thing.  Snow White says that I said it on the air.  I’m not so sure that I did.

Before and After View of the Richelieu Apartments Where A Hurricane Party Was Supposedly Held; As the Story goes-one person survived by floating out of a 2nd story window before the building collapsed

But, the reason that I knew that was because it had been so long since Hurricane Camille, that most people did not remember Camille.  I was a kid in 1969 and we were supposed to go to a family reunion in Biloxi but Biloxi was blown and washed away. We drove to Mobile Bay and the Grand Hotel at Point Clear, AL a month after the storm.  I saw the fishing boats on the other side of the highway after Camille.  I saw the empty space were homes and businesses used to be.  Interstate 10 was not complete yet and we had to divert way north to Poplarville, MS and I remember that far inland all of the trees laid over like matchsticks and the utter devastation to Poplarville that was 40 miles inland.  I rememberd how large ocean going freighters were stuck on the beach and saw a giant beached barge.  I remembered the story of the infamous hurricane party supposedly held at the Richelieu Apartments

Flooding In Richmond, VA From Hurricane Camille

Most of the people who lived there in 2005 were not aware of Hurricane Camille.  Certainly, the developers of all of those casinos that the legislature determined could not be on land did not learn any lessons from Hurricane Camille in 1969.  Camille killed some 267 people, though many were killed in Virginia and West Virginia from flooding.  In fact, rainfall from Camille  in parts of the Virginia’s  approached 25 inches.   Due in large part to the flooding in New Orleans, somewhere between 1000 and 2000 died from Katrina, yet I”m afraid that to some degree, the lessons from Katrina could be forgotten just as they were with Camille.  The greatest that I can think of is that no one seems to want to admit that Hurricane Katrina did not hit New Orleans.  Some folks along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005 had no clue of what was about to hit them.   I’m afraid that, even though Katrina utterly devastated New Orleans, it will be lost on public officials and residents that it could be far worse.  It is quite unsettling to think of what a Hurricane Camille striking Southeast Louisiana from the Southwest with 200 mph winds would do to the Crescent City.

Weather Bottom Line:  I saw over the weekend a forecast that called for temperatures in the 90’s this week which tells me that person’s abilities are limited.  Upper 80’s is the story as a frontal boundary came through followed by  a secondary push of drier air.  That front to the south didn’t go to far and tomorrow we have a wave running up along that boundary which may overrun our area and give us a chance for rain.  I’m still not so sure that the remnant of Tropical Depression 5 is not going to help bring us some moisture too this week.  Anyway, the humidity should slowly return as the week progresses and we probably will eventually get back to the low 90’s by the end of the week as a warm front moves north on Friday or Saturday in advance of an oncoming cold front.  It’s not that great of a front except that it will reinforce the fairly comfortable conditions we have with bearable humidity and highs around 90.  Sunday looks to be the better of the weekend as rain chances should be off the board.

9 Responses

  1. Wow! What a powerful hurricane. Of course, I’d heard of Camille but didn’t know much about it. The public does have a short memory about everything, I’m afraid. We get too complacent and comfortable in our day-to-day lives and forget how dangerous the world is in which we live.

    I guess you heard about John Belski retiring. I am glad for him I suppose but sad to see him go. I will really miss his weather blog too but thankfully we’ve still got you, Mr. Symon!

  2. Belski is a real good guy. WAVE is going to miss him very much when the look at the bottom line comes around each quarter.

  3. I know that the weather community is pretty tight so I’m wondering if you have any idea of what’s up with Belski leaving? It was certainly very sudden and with Bob Domine suddenly deciding to retire at the same time it does seem suspicious. Is this voluntary? If it is not, then there seems to be a ugly trend in our community away from REAL weather guys like you, Ken Shulz and now John Belski to something less. I hope that this is not the case. Kevin Harned is a good guy so hopefully WAVE will be OK. On the other hand, the guy they got to replace Ken Shulz doesn’t come close to filling his shoes in my humble opinion.

  4. The summer after Camille, my parents and I went on our last “family vacation”. I wanted to go to MS, and it was astonishing to us to see so much damage still remaining. Of course, five years post-Katrina and Rita and two years post-Ike I’ve a much clearer idea of why it took so long to recover.

    I’ve said this somewhere, so excuse me if you’ve read it already. What amazes me is that I don’t remember seeing the Gulf until I moved to Houston in ’72. I don’t remember seeing the water in MS in 1970 at all -only the damage.

    I enjoyed your references to the difficulty of forecasting in the early days. I’ve read Isaac’s Storm a couple of times and really enjoyed it.

    As for storm surge: I know some folks who rode out Ike in a cut somewhere near Port Arthur. They were on their way to Lake Charles when the Coast Guard stopped them, told them the ICW was closed and they should anchor up.

    Well. They did. All was going pretty well until the back side of the storm hit and the pin holding their main anchor chain vibrated out. They rode the surge across two tree lines and landed in a cane field about 2 miles north of the ICW. The boat was fine, but they couldn’t walk out because of the snakes and alligators. Needless to say, there’s much more to the story, but they got out and so did their boat – with the help of a heavy-lift chopper and The Discovery Channel😉

  5. I was monitoring the tidal guages and, believe it or not, the highest storm surge was around the Sabine River, not Bolivar Peninsula…pretty far away from the eye. Very interesting storm. It had the potential to be a big bopper but just never consolidated…the energy was way spread out.

  6. people are stupid

  7. A+ would read again

  8. I was 9 years old living in Pensacola when Camille hit. The biggest pine trees sounded like shotgun blasts as they snapped like twigs. Katrina had a lot of water damage but Camille was really a fearful hurricane

  9. Thanx Rodney. It was a beast with windspeed much greater and exponentially more damaging. However, Katrina had a very broad windfield with 100mph winds from Dauphin Island to New Orleans, though New Orleans was not hit by a hurricane. It was affected by a storm surge that would be consistent with a category 5 storm, not a category 3. My wife’s relative lives in New Orleans and he got mad at me when I said that it could have been way worse. He said it was as bad as it could get and I told him that he was making my point…the public and media think that was the worst…and its not even close. But, at least it gave a glimpse of what can happen. Thanx again for your interest.

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