Weather: Camille


The rip-roaring decades of the 1950s and 1960s were just winding down when another massive storm came along. This one became the only Category 5 storm to ever cross the U.S. mainland. The storm had a relatively compact structure, hurricane-force winds extending out only 60 miles from the center, but Hurricane Camille delivered some of the strongest winds on record.

Once again, this storm developed off the west coast of Africa. The initial disturbance showed up on August 5, 1969. Over the next nine days, it pushed westward and steadily intensified. On August 14, it became "Camille." The storm moved into the Gulf of Mexico on August 16, winds reaching well over 130 mph. By August 17, the storm was centered 250 miles south of Mobile, Alabama, and hurricane warnings began to fly along the Gulf Coast. Evacuations got underway. On that Sunday afternoon, reconnaissance aircraft reported surface winds reading an unheard-of 200 mph. At that point, the storm center was just 100 miles away from the mouth of the Mississippi River. At 10:30 P.M.on August 17, the storm center made landfall on the Mississippi coast. Just as I watched my roof fly away in Hurricane Carol, bailed out my basement next to my grandfather during the floods of Connie and Diane, and became engaged during Hurricane Betsy, my first daughter was born during the time of Hurricane Camille's sweep into the United States.

When the storm came onshore in Mississippi, a 24-foot tidal surge occurred at Pass Christian. The surface pressure dropped to 26.61 inches. Southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi were swamped. The swath of destruction was complete along the Mississippi coast up to three or four blocks inland. In the Biloxi area, 60 resort properties were damaged; one half were destroyed. Again damage topped $1 billion. Two thirds of all telephones in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi were out of service. The tidal surge was also devastating in southeast Louisiana. The area from Empire southeastward was swept clean. Most structures were completely demolished—even those that survived Betsy just four years earlier.

Camille's winds rapidly diminished as the storm pushed inland, but its energy lingered. Its remnants contributed to as much as 25 inches of flash-flooding rains as far north as West Virginia and Virginia. More than 260 people who were caught up in Camille were killed.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weather © 2002 by Mel Goldstein, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.