Hurricane Camille Devastates the U.S. Gulf Coast Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Packing winds of 190 miles per hour, Hurricane Camille was among the most powerful and destructive storms in modern history to reach the U.S. mainland. Making landfall along the Mississippi and Louisiana gulf coasts, the storm devastated coastal communities before moving inland, causing landslides and severe flooding as far away as Virginia on the east coast of the United States.

Summary of Event

Beginning as a disturbance off the coast of Africa in early August, 1969, the low-pressure system that became Hurricane Camille was first identified by satellite in the Caribbean Sea on August 14. The next day, winds intensified to hurricane force as the storm crossed the western tip of Cuba before moving into the Gulf of Mexico. On August 16, Camille grew in strength to a Saffir/Simpson Category 5 hurricane with winds exceeding 160 miles per hour. National Weather Service warnings were issued for much of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts from Biloxi, Mississippi, to St. Marks, Florida. Hurricanes Camille (hurricane) [kw]Hurricane Camille Devastates the U.S. Gulf Coast (Aug. 17-18, 1969) [kw]Camille Devastates the U.S. Gulf Coast, Hurricane (Aug. 17-18, 1969) [kw]U.S. Gulf Coast, Hurricane Camille Devastates the (Aug. 17-18, 1969) [kw]Gulf Coast, Hurricane Camille Devastates the U.S. (Aug. 17-18, 1969) Hurricanes Camille (hurricane) [g]North America;Aug. 17-18, 1969: Hurricane Camille Devastates the U.S. Gulf Coast[10410] [g]United States;Aug. 17-18, 1969: Hurricane Camille Devastates the U.S. Gulf Coast[10410] [c]Disasters;Aug. 17-18, 1969: Hurricane Camille Devastates the U.S. Gulf Coast[10410] Williams, John Bell

Early on Sunday morning, August 17, residents began securing homes and businesses and boarding up windows. As predictions for destructive winds and flooding became more ominous, the trickle of fleeing residents became a torrent. Official estimates indicate that 81,000 out of 150,000 local residents left the area. In isolated areas police and civil defense authorities went door-to-door, pleading with holdouts to move inland. Camille made landfall near St. Louis Bay just before midnight on August 17.

Wind speeds associated with Camille can only be estimated, because meteorological equipment did not survive conditions during the hurricane’s landfall. Sustained wind speeds within the eye wall were estimated to have been 190 miles per hour with gusts up to 210 miles per hour. Hardest hit was the region east of the eye, between Long Beach and Pass Christian, Mississippi. Believing that it would strike farther east, many coastal residents elected to ride out the storm as they had with previous hurricanes. However, many who ignored warnings to leave did not live to regret their decision.

Rainfall associated with the storm averaged between 2 and 6 inches, with 10.6 inches recorded in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. At 25 feet above average sea level, Camille’s storm surge was the highest associated with any U.S. hurricane until Katrina in August, 2005. Witness reports described rising waters that made the Mississippi River flow backward for 125 miles from its mouth at New Orleans to a point north of Baton Rouge. The tremendous force of the wind and of floodwaters carried boats, including a fuel barge that was deposited between the east- and west-bound lanes of Highway 90, as much as one mile inland. Damage to the region was catastrophic. No hurricane or storm surge striking the United States had ever submerged as much land area. Mississippi communities subjected to the storm’s fury included Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Biloxi and Ocean Springs.

The coastal area where Camille came ashore was not heavily populated. Coupled with adequate warning, the storm produced a lower death toll compared to previous hurricanes. The official estimate was 143 killed, most in the Mississippi counties of Jackson, Hancock, and Harrison. Chaos ensued for several days after the storm. The ferocity of Camille had wiped out roads, bridges, utility lines, and railroads. For more than fifteen thousand homeless survivors there was no food, water, fuel, or access to medical care or supplies.

Camille’s destruction did not end at the coastline. As the storm moved inland it turned eastward, depositing heavy rains across Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. On the night of August 19, torrential rains lasting more than eight hours struck Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, causing the James River watershed to knock out communication links and damage highways. Because most people were asleep when the storm hit, there was little warning. In Virginia alone floods and landslides Landslides killed 113 people. On August 21, Camille moved into the Atlantic Ocean, regained tropical storm intensity, then diminished in strength as it collided with a cold front.

On the day after the storm, local, state, and federal agencies and volunteer groups began mobilizing to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Mississippi governor John Bell Williams declared martial law, and on August 19, President Richard M. Nixon declared the region a federal disaster area. The federal Office of Emergency Preparedness Office of Emergency Preparedness, U.S. (OEP) coordinated the government’s response. Military helicopters were used to rescue people in areas cut off by debris-covered roads or damaged bridges. National Guard units delivered medical supplies, potable water, and food for thousands of survivors. Among the first major issues to address was the disposal of thousands of dead animals. More than five thousand mobile homes were moved to affected areas to serve as temporary shelters.

An assessment of damage to coastal communities revealed the complete destruction of 5,900 housing units and damage to another 14,000 units. More than 90 percent of homes were damaged in Poplarville, Mississippi. In the community of Buras, located along the Mississippi River, only six buildings remained standing in an area that had previously served as home to six thousand persons. Transportation services, industrial facilities, and agricultural operations were decimated by the storm. Five trucking terminals were completely destroyed and more than 530 miles of roadway remained impassible because of the volume of debris. In addition to the destruction of several gulf area oil rigs, damage was sustained to pipelines and the shipping terminal of Gulfport. Agricultural losses included the destruction of timberland, damage to pecan and orange orchards, and the drowning of five thousand head of cattle. Property damage caused by Camille was estimated to be $1.5 billion ($48.6 billion in 2006 dollars). Restoring basic service and reconstruction became difficult in communities such as Pass Christian, where 70 percent of taxable property was lost, and in Long Beach, where assessed property values fell 23 percent. Most of the destruction in Virginia was in Nelson County, where 250 houses were destroyed. The storm’s passage became Virginia’s worst natural disaster, with damage estimated to exceed $19 million.

Significance

After the so-called Labor Day storm of 1935, Hurricane Camille was the most intense storm to strike the U.S. mainland and only one of three Category 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the United States since records of these storms were kept. Camille’s central pressure was 909 mb (26.85 inches of mercury) when it reached landfall. Although several other Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the Pacific have been as strong, they have not made landfall at the same intensity. In coastal areas the storm erased nearly every structure within four city blocks of the coast. Even buildings constructed from masonry block could not withstand the extreme winds and rising waters. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Camille was the “benchmark” against which all other hurricanes were measured. Many survivors referred to dates and events as “BC” (before Camille) or “AC” (after Camille). The relief effort for Camille was the largest in U.S. history until Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Hurricanes Camille (hurricane)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradford, Marlene, and Robert S. Carmichael, eds. Natural Disasters. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2001. Essays explore the history and impact of natural disasters around the world, including, in volume 2, the devastating effects of hurricanes and other weather phenomena.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elsner, James B., and A. B. Kara. Hurricanes of the North Atlantic: Climate and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An overview of hurricane formation and development with consideration of hurricane life cycles, the Saffir/Simpson Scale, hurricane seasonality, and other topics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emanuel, Kerry. Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Emanuel discusses the science of hurricane formation and popular hurricane myths. The book is richly illustrated with photographs, satellite images, and diagrams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzpatrick, Patrick J. Hurricanes: A Reference Handbook. 2d ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2005. An updated edition that explores the economic, social, and environmental effects of hurricanes in North America and the Caribbean. Includes a comprehensive introductory essay and a chronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hearn, Phillip D. Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. The story of the storm that forever changed the Mississippi coast. Much of the book focuses on survivors and what they were doing in the days and hours before the storm came ashore.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zebrowski, Ernest, and Judith A. Howard. Category 5, the Story of Camille: Lessons Unlearned from America’s Most Violent Hurricane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. This book discusses the storm and how it disproportionately impacted lower-income communities.

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