Charley stirring memories of Camille


August 21, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Survivors of Hurricane Charley share a kinship with victims of another vicious hurricane that raced through the Gulf of Mexico 35 years ago this week.

Camille, only the second Category-5 hurricane to make landfall in the United States during the last century, slammed headlong into the Mississippi and southeast Louisiana Gulf Coast during the evening of Aug. 17, 1969, with screaming winds that gusted up to 200 mph.

Accompanied by 20-foot storm tides and rains of less than a foot, Camille exhibited such savagery that those exposed to it likely found God that night or lost their faith, as the hurricane with all its brutal destructiveness roared overhead for what seemed endless hours.

"By any yardstick, Camille was the greatest storm of any kind ever to have effected the mainland of the United States," said Robert Simpson, director of the National Hurricane Center, at the time. It was the fifth costliest hurricane of all time, doing nearly $7 billion in damage.

"For each survivor had experiences of his own that cannot really be described. Some may remember miraculous feats of heroism, while others portions of their prayers," said a 1999 article in Weatherwise, a publication of the American Meteorological Association. "There are many who will never forget the two hours of continuous sound level of 120 decibels - a sound equivalent to that of several low-flying aircraft or a rocket engine."

Camille was first picked up on Aug. 5 by forecasters aided by satellite imagery. They began intensely studying the tropical wave that had been born in the swirling hot winds coming off the Sahara Desert.

Drifting westward across the broad Atlantic, the storm was by Aug. 9 about 480 miles east of the Caribbean's Leeward Islands, which it saturated with heavy rains as it moved into warm tropical waters near Cuba, where it found additional sustenance. The storm officially became a hurricane on Aug. 15 and was named Camille.

Early on the morning of Aug. 17, an Air Force hurricane hunter and its crew flew into the storm and recorded a barometric pressure of 26.61 inches of mercury and winds of more than 200 mph.

Alarmed at the intensity of the storm and fearful of a tidal surge prediction of 24 feet, weather forecasters issued hurricane warnings and evacuations for the Florida panhandle and the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama.

Shortly before midnight Camille's eye roared into Pass Christian, Miss., with 200 mph. winds and storm waters that rose to 22.6 feet. Gulfport and Biloxi were inundated by heavy flood waters. Because Camille hit with such a sustained force that destroyed all wind instruments, there is no record of the actual sustained winds.

Gregory Durrschmidt, a young airman assigned to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, offered a first-person account of being in his barracks when Camille hit in Weatherwise.

"A terrifying, angry shriek announces Camille's arrival. The deafening scream seems to come from everywhere. My heart races wildly as the building takes its first strike," he wrote.

Sheet metal sheds that housed rooftop ventilator fans were ripped from their moorings as the sound of shattered glass filled the air. Everything, anchored or not, became suddenly airborne - and dangerous.

"With flashlights we can see the wind-driven rain come down the stairwells. Water blows in under the seaward door with such force that it chips the paint off the opposite wall," he wrote.

Ocean-going steamships and barges were beached inland and gracious antebellum homes that had lined the beaches for more than 100 years were suddenly no more.

As quickly as the storm surge rushed ashore, uprooting, inundating and destroying anything in its path, it withdrew after about 30 minutes, sucking both the human and manmade flotsam and jetsam it had created seaward back into the Gulf of Mexico with a roar.

The 143 who had died along the Gulf Coast were joined by 68 souls who vanished without a trace.

As Camille pulled free of the Gulf Coast and headed northeast, the hurricane took a right-hook-like course, and quickly weakened to a tropical depression with winds falling to 39 mph.

But Camille wasn't quite finished.

As the storm blew over the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains for five hours during the night of Aug.19-20, it dropped torrential rains that reached 30 inches in some areas. Landslide and flooding in southwestern Virginia killed another 113.

Southern Maryland experienced some flooding after six inches of rain fell while Camille made her way into the Atlantic. By Friday, Aug. 22, Camille finally died out 175 miles southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland.

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