After 35 years, Camille still fresh in their minds

78 died in Pass Christian when hurricane hit Miss.

September 15, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. - No one is home. Not in the tile-roofed mansions that line the white beaches, not in the tiny, tin-roofed homes that back up to the bayou. The waitress at the Rusty Pelican was still ladling out gumbo at lunchtime yesterday, but each glass-topped table that she wiped clean stayed that way, vacant like everything else from the beachfront to the railroad tracks.

Hurricane Ivan is to blame, of course, aimed as it is toward this flat, quiet stretch of Mississippi coast. But the locals here admit to being more skittish then most, some downright terrified. And it's not Ivan that made them that way, but Hurricane Camille, the most powerful storm ever to strike the U.S. mainland. It hit Aug. 17, 1969, dead on Pass Christian.

The 23-foot storm surge and 190 mph winds that Hurricane Camille delivered here, the 78 residents that it killed, are seared into the common memory of this town sure as any wedding, graduation or birthday before or since. Nearly everything that exists is, somehow, a child of Camille - the government buildings that had to be rebuilt, the bends in the waterfront boulevard that was rebuilt to follow the coast Camille reshaped.

Even the memories of the Sunday night storm exist only because Camille allowed some people to survive.

"Anybody that's stupid enough to stay here for this hurricane, they ain't never experienced Camille," said Wesley Henderson, 46, as he plotted his evacuation along David Avenue in the center of town. "I was only 12 years old when Camille came, and let me tell you I get chills just looking at those pictures of Ivan coming this way."

That Ivan is eliciting memories of Camille is hardly unexpected, given the storm's velocity and its beeline for the same stretch of Gulf Coast real estate. But even if its powerful 140 mph winds persist and its projected 15-foot storm surge materializes, Ivan would be unlikely to match its predecessor in destructive force or ability to impose lasting change on the Gulf Coast's geology and sociology.

Even with warnings of its potential, Camille killed 143 people up and down the Gulf Coast and another 113 from flooding as far north as Virginia. Its massive storm surge threw a blanket of sea water inland for miles in some areas, washing away houses and sucking debris and victims out to sea upon its retreat. Its top winds spiked at well above 200 mph.

Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado professor who specializes in the economic and social history of hurricanes, released a study of Camille in 1999 which calculated that 5,662 houses were destroyed by the storm and 13,915 suffered major damage. Pass Christian, battered by Camille's worst, lost 70 percent of its taxable property, the report said.

"Every generation has a storm that reminds people of the potential for devastation that a hurricane holds - an Andrew, or a Hugo - but Camille was really a life-changing event for that part of the country," Pielke said in a interview yesterday. "People are still talking about it, still connected to it 35 years later. That tells you something."

The name Pass Christian was derived from that of its French forefather, Nicholas Christian L'Adnier, and from the deepwater pass that makes it accessible to the Gulf of Mexico. The locals pronounce it "christie-ann," but few were around yesterday to do any pronouncing at all. Those who hadn't fled yet were working on it, always with Camille in mind.

Roy Piernas, 52, took refuge with his father inside a school during Camille, and remembers seeing the walls rippling and twisting under the force of the wind.

"Thank God, those walls didn't come down," Piernas said, hauling a few last-minute sheets of plywood to the side of his house, a few hundred yards from the water. "The destruction was so random - one house would explode over here, one right next to it would stay up," he said, pointing a finger back and forth. "But you never forget the power of it."

The walls at Billy Bourdin's plumbing and heating shop in the center of town are cluttered to the ceiling with black-and-white photographs of destroyed buildings, a kind of shrine to Pass Christian's history. One shows long-forgotten beachfront developments, washed down to concrete slabs by Camille. Another shows the majestic Richelieu Apartments, a U-shaped, brick-and-mortar structure that was considered a shelter until it washed away, killing the 21 people inside.

Pacing around the room as Henderson and police chief John Dubuisson sat back in metal chairs nearby, Bourdin stretched his arm to a high picture to point out the old firehouse where he and 46 others survived Camille.

Bourdin, now 76, was a volunteer fireman then, and he spent much of the night braving the tempest to pull dazed residents inside. The only thing keeping him from blowing away was the 3 feet of water that flooded the streets, he said. The only dry place in the firehouse was the tops of the trucks, and those were reserved for the most seriously injured. No one else could lie down.

"You want to know what was going on in that firehouse? No drinking, I can tell you that," Bourdin said.

"But a lot of religion, I'll bet," the police chief added.

"Where I was, with my family, I ain't never heard so much praying in all my life," added Henderson. "You'd have thought we were having a service."

Henderson stayed in his home in nearby De Lisle, a mile or two from the coast, and his whole family eventually moved into the attic of their one-story house to escape the rising surge. He remembers swinging his feet down from the rafters and touching water.

"You hear little kids now joking about these things, saying they're not afraid, gonna ride it out," Henderson said, finishing his thought with a scowl and a shake of his head. "They ain't heard that wind blow yet," Bourdin added. "That'll take the joking out of them."

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