Remembering Our Most Intense Hurricane

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Mention the word “hurricane” to a Pearl River County resident, and the first word to pop into his or her mind may very well be “Katrina.” I suspect this is especially true for those under the age of 50 and people who have moved here in the last several decades.
But as huge as Katrina’s local impact was when and after it hit on August 29, 2005, yesterday, August 17th, marked the 46th anniversary of an even more intense hurricane.
On Sunday night August 17, and in the early morning hours of August 18, 1969, the core of small, but devastating, Hurricane Camille came ashore in Hancock County and roared northward across Pearl River County.
Despite the lack of any wind measurements in the county, it is almost certain that Camille’s winds were the strongest to hit Pearl River County in recorded history.
Earlier that Sunday afternoon with Camille still over the warm waters of the Gulf approaching the mouth of the Mississippi River delta, an Air Force reconnaissance aircraft measured an extremely low central pressure of 901 millibars and estimated that surface winds were near 200 miles per hour.
That evening about 10:30 the cyclone crossed the Mississippi Gulf Coast. On the eastern edge of the eye a barometer in Bay St. Louis measured an atmospheric pressure of 909 millibars, making Camille the second most intense hurricane to make landfall in United States history.
Only the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 had a lower pressure, 892 millibars, when it hit the Florida Keys.
For comparison, during our normal weather cycles, the sea level pressure varies from around 1040 millibars under a strong, cold winter high pressure to 990 millibars in a strong wintertime Gulf low. The Saffir-Simson Scale, which is used to compare hurricanes, is divided into the following categories: Category 1: 980-994 millibars, Category 2: 965-979 millibars, Category 3: 945-964 millibars, Category 4: 920-944 millibars, Category 5: less than 920 millibars.
Anemometers are the instruments used to measure wind speed. There were very few in the direct path of Camille, and those that were at places such as the Mississippi Test Facility (now known as Stennis Space Center), Slidell, and Gulfport, all failed before the storm’s strongest winds arrived.
Meteorologists and engineers who have studied the observations that were made and the wind damage that was done estimate that the maximum sustained winds (the average wind speed over one-minute) in the eyewall in coastal Hancock County and just to the right of the eye in coastal Harrison County were near 175 miles per hour. Some gusts may have approached 200 mph.
Here in Pearl River County, 20-50 miles inland, along and just to the left of the center, the maximum winds were almost certainly over 125 mph with some gusts topping 150 mph.
In comparison, most studies of Katrina’s wind field estimate that sustained winds in Pearl River County ranged from 80-110 mph.
If you were not here on August 17-18, 1969, ask someone who was. They probably haven’t forgotten the experience of that night and the months that followed.

By Skip Rigney

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