50 years later: Hurricane Camille was a 2-part disaster that remains 1 of the costliest storms ever
Peak hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin unfolds in mid-August and lasts through October. From Camille to Katrina to Harvey, August hurricanes have caused billions of dollars of damage across the eastern United States.
Half a century has gone by since Hurricane Camille slammed into the Mississippi coast, yet the storm remains one of the most powerful and costly hurricanes on record to make landfall in the United States.
Camille was the second-most-intense hurricane to hit the U.S. and remains one of only four Category 5 hurricanes to strike the mainland U.S. The storm resulted in at least 259 fatalities and caused nearly $1.4 billion in damages at the time, which equates to about $9.7 billion (2018 USD).
The hurricane formed in the Cayman Islands on Aug. 14 and continued to intensify rapidly before making landfall on Aug. 17, 1969, near Waveland, Mississippi, according to the National Hurricane Center.
"Most hurricanes weaken as they approach landfall, but Camille is the exception," AccuWeather Forensic Meteorologist Steve Wistar explained. "That's unusual."
Camille's intensity at landfall was 900 millibars pressure (26.5 inches of mercury) making it the second-strongest hurricane to make landfall in the continental U.S., exceeded only by 1935's Labor Day hurricane with 892 mb (26.3 inches of mercury). The storm was slightly stronger than Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Michael.
"Camille was similar to Michael, which hit the Florida Panhandle in 2018, in that it intensified or continued to intensify as it was making landfall," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist and Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski. "These type of storm systems produce the most damage and cause the most damaging storm surges."
The storm caused a devastating 24.6-foot storm surge, the greatest for the U.S. until Hurricane Katrina, and winds gusted to more than 170 mph along the coast. However, the actual maximum sustained winds of Hurricane Camille are not known as the hurricane destroyed all the wind-recording instruments in the landfall area.
A number of residents along the Gulf coast underestimated just how powerful this hurricane was becoming and either lost their life or suffered injuries, Kottlowski said.
“It’s unlikely that those who stayed had any idea that a Category 5 storm was coming,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Dale Mohler said, adding that the government did not forecast hurricane categories at the time. It wasn't until the 1973 hurricane season that the federal government introduced the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale to the public.
The combination of a lack of forecasting technology and some forecasters' inability to predict the intensity is another reason the fatalities were so severe and why people did not evacuate the area, Mohler added.
“The storm intensified very rapidly,” he said. “It surprised some forecasters.”
A popular urban legend exists surrounding the storm in which a group of people gathered for a "hurricane party," and ultimately all of them lost their lives as a result of the storm's force. The party supposedly took place at the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi.
The storm totally destroyed the building, and, the legend goes, most people who attended the party were killed by the effects of the storm surge and phenomenal winds, Kottlowski said.
However, the story has been debunked by several news outlets.
Camille was a two-part disaster, as the storm's deadly impacts affected both coastal and inland areas.
Following Camille's landfall, the storm weakened to a depression as it moved inland over the next several days. However, the slow-moving system wreaked havoc on the mid-Atlantic, especially Virginia.
"Camille was not a large hurricane; it was a tightly compact storm. This allowed the storm to maintain its circulation much longer than most hurricanes. This led to considerable impacts from the hurricane well inland from where it made landfall," Kottlowski said.
In Virginia, the storm dumped over 27 inches of rain in some parts of the region. With most of the rain falling in three to four hours in the southwestern mountains of Virginia, more than 100 people died due to disastrous flooding and landslides.
In this photo, taken Aug. 12, 2009, the Hurricane Camille Memorial is seen on the grounds of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, Miss. The disk is a tile mosaic image of Hurricane Camille and the names of the deceased are etched on the memorial's wall. (AP Photo/Judi Bottoni)
Wistar reflected on Hurricane Camille's impact during the summer of 1969 when speaking with AccuWeather in 2014.
"There were two very different stories going on," he said at the time, noting that the Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York, was just wrapping up as Camille made landfall.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina eclipsed Camille as the most destructive hurricane ever to strike Mississippi's Gulf coast.
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