Two Mighty Days: August 17-18, 1969

I grew up around people who took hurricanes very seriously. They’d all lived on the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Camille struck in 1969. Not since 1935 had such a powerful storm swept onto the low-lying areas around the Gulf of Mexico, and in part because of that, some people didn’t take the storm that seriously. After all, it was just another hurricane, so there’s be wind, and rain, and water in the usual places, but nothing really out of Gulf-Coast ordinary.

I’ve ridden out Category one and two hurricanes, on what was then the far northern side of Houston. “The rains fell and the wind blew,” but that was all the excitement at my grandparents’ house. But those were weak, and further weakened by coming ashore and moving 50 or so miles inland. Not a Category Five storm riding a plume of unusually warm water. Warm water is hurricane fuel, and the Gulf was warm in the summer of 1969.

Camille began south of Cuba, clipped the western edge of Cuba, and then ran almost due north, growing stronger as she moved toward the US. She was first observed and labeled as a tropical depression on August 14. Yes, three days between formal recognition and landfall in the US. She came ashore in the evening with winds of at least 150 MPH sustained, and higher gusts. Her winds may have been over 200 mph while out in the Gulf, again, gusting higher. How much higher? No one knows, because the storm ripped out all the weather reporting equipment, took out power, flattened buildings, and drove a very powerful storm surge ahead of it. Camille made landfall near Pass Christian, Mississippi, right on the border of Mississippi and Louisiana.

From NOAA, Fair Use under Creative Commons.

The storm tide was almost 25 feet (over six meters), and driven by the high winds, it wiped clean everything in its path. The most famous – or infamous – was the Richelieu Apartment Complex, where residents had a hurricane party, or so people later claimed. They building was modern, and made of concrete, and could withstand anything, so 23 people stayed after boarding up the windows and taking sensible precautions. When the sun came out on the 19th, all that remained were the foundations.

The horrible aftermath – Fair Use under Creative Commons.

When she made landfall, Camille stretched from the TX – LA border to the western shores of Florida. Pretty much everyone on the Gulf Coast west of Houston felt the effects one way or another. Crop losses hit hard, taking out pecan orchards, tung orchards (for tung oil), corn, soybeans, cotton, and some fruit trees. Most of the damage came from the wind blowing everything flat. The storm surge and storm tides were so strong that they actually cause the Mississippi River to back up, making flooding worse in some places. The death toll was over 259, but the total is unknown.

Again, from the NOAA site.

It would be almost thirty years before another Cat 5 storm reached the US. By then, radar, better weather satellites, the hurricane hunter airborne research planes, and other things would help reduce loss of life, although property damage was higher (because so many more people lived in the way of hurricanes.) People prepared better, thanks to the warnings and technology, although there were still lives lost.

The song from which the title comes:

12 thoughts on “Two Mighty Days: August 17-18, 1969

  1. They had radar in 1969. I don’t know how good it was at weather, how many instruments the weather folks had, or what they knew how to get out of it.

    I can tell you that efforts have been ongoing over the past fifty years to improve weather radar. Couldn’t tell you what or when. Yet.

    There’s chance I may come across a guest post or more of information. Are you interested in guest posts, or not?

    Does your flying experience include using any airborne radar systems? Beyond altimeters?

    • I’ve never used a radar altimiter – planes were too small. I have used airborne weather radar and StrikeFinder™. They are OK if you are not in precipitation. Once you get into rain, radar is less and less reliable the heavier the rain gets. StrikeFinders are better for thunderstorm detection if you are worried about storms hidden in rain.

      The problem was interpreting the radar returns in 1969, and that the media did not have the rapid access to the images that they do now. The reports from ships in the Gulf and from the drilling platforms were probably more useful, from what I’ve read and been told.

  2. Bad – very bad. I sat out a typhoon on base in Northern Japan with 100+ winds, once – and that was enough for me.
    Even worse for the Texas gulf coast, though – the 1900 Galveston hurricane. The weather service anemometer was carried away, so like Camille, no idea of how powerful the wind was. Casualties estimated at least 8,000, possibly as high as 12,000.

  3. Weather people have better imagery and faster delivery now, but I’m not convinced that they can analyze and interpret any better. The digital deliveries look more precise, but accuracy and interpretation aren’t great.

    Worse is the Cantori Effect. This is when people see weather boys and girls “playing” in severe storms and hurricanes. People think it’s not that bad; they stay put in disasters and then require rescue, or go out to danger zones and get literally washed out to sea.

  4. I was at a training course on Keesler AFB, Biloxi MS, in October of I think 1995 when Hurricane Opal (I think), Cat 4, showed up. At the point where decisions had to be made the predicted track pointed straight at Keesler, and Keesler’s front gate is only a couple hundred yards off the Gulf.

    Us officer students were given a choice of camping out in the same hurricane-proof (allegedly) buildings with everybody TDY to the base or evacuating the area.. I chose to leave, although I didn’t have a vehicle. One of my buddies was heading to Texas to wait out things with his family, so he dropped me at the Gulfport-Biloxi airport where I just barely made the last car rental before the staff fled. I drove to Baton Rouge, found a motel, and watched TV until it was safe to come back. Some people evacuated to the northeast, up into Alabama, some going to Maxwell AFB. Some of the lesser sane decided to check into a motel on the beach and have a hurricane party. I did not expect them to complete the course afterwards.

    However, the hurricane veered right and came ashore on the Florida panhandle area, Fort Walton Beach, Pensacola, Eglin AFB, and marched inland from there. Thus Keesler (and me, and the hurricane partiers) were spared most of the force, but the people who evac’d to Maxwell got stuck for a couple extra days.

    Later that month I visited the Fort Walton Beach area, and drove along the beach road that faced Santa Rosa Island, at least where the road wasn’t buried under several feet of sand and water. It was a stunning sight.

    There were a dozen? two dozen? multistory hotels along the way, all completely destroyed. The buildings were still standing but the ground floors, parking lots, and the grounds around them had several feet of sand standing on them. All the windows were blown out, and you could see hotel furniture, beds, sheets, decorating the inland side for … I dunno, probably miles. The rest of the area was pretty well trashed too, houses washed off of foundations. large sailboats sitting in front of churches. Highway 90 simply disappeared in places, covered in sand or still underwater.

    The silver lining to the hurricane cloud came when I went to New Orleans shortly after the storm. New Orleans basically just got a good hard rain, and this had washed away all the street grime and trash. It was amazingly clean, and to put a cherry on it, the humidity had been blown away as well. Mild temperature, no humidity, clean sidewalks — it was magnificent! Spent more on food in one day than I ever have before or since, partied with some friends, and had a great time. I have avoided going to NO since then because I’m afraid it won’t match my memory of it.

    Before I that hurricane I had an intellectual fear of them, but after seeing what it did to the Fort Walton Beach area, there’s a visceral component to that fear. Yikes.

  5. I lived through Camille while stationed at Corry Field near Pensacola Fl. They made all of us single sailors ride it out in the cinder block/concrete former aircraft hangers. When I rode home afterwards there were a fair number of down trees and 2+ feet of water in spots but my Honda 250 handled it with no problem. The mobile home a couple of us sailors rented came through without problems as well. The damage to the west of us made me a believer about evacuating when they advised it.

  6. Cousin was National Guard, they were in NOLA less than 24 hours after it hit. He was a combat vet, and said it was worse than bombing he’d seen in Korea. I rode out Pamela in Guam in 76, it MOVED the roof of the hanger over, then back when the eye went over… STILL gives me nightmares. Oh, and we lost a house on Grande Isle to Camille.

    • Barrier Islands are not a good place to be when the storms come. Unless you can hide in the aging caves under Avery Island, but the fermenting peppers might get you.

  7. For tracking winds, I suspect that Doppler radar is what you want. And that was a very new technology back then, mostly available to the DoD.

  8. I was an Electronics Tech in the USN and one of my specialties was a radar system and yes Doppler radar is the system needed to track weather and that was discovered as a side effect for it’s true design purpose of tracking high altitude aircraft and ICBM’s. NOAA didn’t get into doppler radar until 1964 and didn’t have a single practical unit until 1969 when they got a used radar from the Airforce. It also isn’t directly tracking winds but the actual water in the storm.

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