50 years ago this weekend two of the passions of my life, weather and music, came together in a historic convergence.
What I’m referring to is what happened in the states of Mississippi and New York.
Given that I’m so into weather and music, it’s natural that I have come to be so enthralled with this coincidence; and since I grew up in New Jersey reading the New York Times, known for its classic front pages, it makes sense that years ago I purchased a copy of the one from August 18, 1969.
Here is a scan of the top left portion:
Camille is one of only four hurricanes to officially be of Category 5 intensity, the highest on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, at the time of landfall in the United States. The others are the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane; 1992’s Andrew, which was in the record books as a Category 4 until upgraded 10 years after the fact, a move with which not everyone agreed; and Hurricane Michael last year, also a Category 4 in realtime which was later upped to a Cat 5.
Camille had been the benchmark hurricane for the part of the country it hit, setting the record U.S. surge height of 24.6′, which stood for 36 years until Katrina set the new record in the same area in Mississippi.
Although the devastation and 143 lives lost on the Gulf Coast are what most people remember, the remnants of Camille went on to produce another catastrophic tragedy a couple days later, when upwards of 30″ of rain in a short period of time in Virginia brought extreme flash flooding and another 113 fatalities.
There have been a couple of myths associated with Hurricane Camille.
One is that John Hope, the late, great hurricane expert at The Weather Channel and formerly at the National Hurricane Center, named Hurricane Camille after his daughter when there was an opening for the “C” name in the 1960s.
Not quite. It is true that the name of John’s daughter did provide the source for the hurricane name to be added to the list, but as I wrote in a blog in 2007 commemorating the 25th anniversary of the launch of TWC:
Here’s the scoop straight from Joe Hope, one of John’s other children:
“My sister, Camille, was a very precocious student, being involved with college courses even while in high school. She was in a science course that for a time involved her working on a project at the Hurricane Center. Her supervisor was Banner Miller, a colleague of Dad’s.
“When Cleo, the name of the hurricane that hit Florida in 1964, was being retired, Banner Miller suggested the name Camille be added to the list as the replacement name for Cleo. Dad had nothing to do with it other than not disagreeing. I recall that this was a very exciting development around our house many years before the legendary storm ever formed.
“Dad did not orchestrate this event. He would say today what he said when he was alive: there are people who know the facts, and the truth should not be misrepresented.”
The other myth to be debunked is a more [in]famous one: that of the alleged hurricane party at the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi, site of that record surge.
As the story goes, a bunch of partiers lived it up, throwing caution to the wind, only to have most of them not make it through the night, a story perpetuated by survivor Mary Ann Gerlach. I posted a blog about that in 2005, a couple of days after Katrina’s landfall. In October 2008, this comment was submitted: “Mr. Ostro, Thanks for helping debunk the Richelieu ‘party’ legend. Every bit helps. Richard Keller, Richelieu survivor”
“Wow,” I thought. Someone actually in the building that night had come across my entry. I contacted him, and we exchanged a number of emails.
Per those links and via other outlets, Ben Duckworth, another survivor, has gone public with a first-hand account of the Richelieu story, including in an interview he gave for an original Storm Stories episode on Hurricane Camille.
During it he states, “I tried to get the story out that there was no party. There was more praying than there was partying. But the story persists today.”
With permission to reproduce, Richard Keller wrote me that “The events of that day are pretty well covered by Ben Duckworth who gave his account to a reporter who subsequently published it on a web site. His message… and mine… is that there was no ‘hurricane party’ at the Richelieu. We spent the day helping the resident managers board up the first floor with pre-cut plywood panels; we moved the pool furniture into storage, secured personal items such as barbecues and moved cars to the local church parking lot that was higher.”
As the hurricane approached and conditions worsened they “moved food upstairs, filled bathtubs with water and hunkered down in front of a small TV with very bad reception and watched a weather report that had the storm heading for New Orleans. My wife prepared dinner for everyone that joined us. The power went out and candles were lit. … The windows in the front of the building exploded, the ceiling opened up and we exited through that opening as we were engulfed in the surge of water.”
What happened next is something which has haunted me ever since Mr. Keller told me about it, and it’s alluded to in those two sources to which I linked above. As they struggled together to survive during the extreme conditions at the height of the storm, he lost his wife. I can only imagine what fortitude it has taken for him to persevere after that surreal, horrific, tragic experience.
As we reflect on this extraordinary meteorological event and are awed by the power of weather, please keep in your thoughts those who passed away during Camille or survived but are left with painful memories of the hurricane and its remnants.
[Author’s note: This article is an update of one posted 10 years ago at the time of the 40th anniversary.]