Approaching Hurricane Camille’s 50th anniversary

Published 7:00 am Saturday, July 20, 2019

By Skip Rigney


“Having made an on-the-scene inspection of the damages done by the hurricane in Pearl River County and Lamar County, there is only one way to characterize the situation. It is indescribable.” So said Pearl River County native, and at the time Mississippi Secretary of State, Heber Ladner back in August 1969.

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August 17th will be the 50th anniversary of one of the most intense hurricanes to ever hit the United States, and Pearl River County was very near ground zero. On the evening of August 17, 1969, Hurricane Camille slammed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The core of the storm roared northward through Hancock County, then into Pearl River County.


Thousands of homes and other buildings in our county were damaged, some irreparably. Three important Pearl River County industries were crippled. One, the tung nut industry, never recovered. The devastation to the adjacent counties of Hancock and Harrison counties was even more severe, making Camille one of the most significant economic and cultural events in the history of south Mississippi.


In the coming weeks, I will look back at this monster storm, its fascinating and awe-inspiring development, intensification, and power, and its impact on and aftermath in our county.


Robert Simpson was a pioneer in the young field of hurricane science in the 1950s and 1960s, and was the director of the National Hurricane Center when Camille hit. Along with civil engineer Herbert Saffir, he developed a way of ranking hurricanes based on the damage expected from different ranges of wind speeds. The system became known as the Saffir-Simpson Scale, and its hurricane categories from 1 through 5 are familiar to residents along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts.


Soon after surveying the damage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Simpson said, “By any yardstick, Camille was the greatest storm of any kind ever to have affected the mainland of the United States.” Sobering words from a man who had personally surveyed many hurricane landfall sites and studied the impacts of most of the hurricanes to have affected our nation.


Camille’s maximum winds have long been a subject of debate among meteorologists. The most definitive analysis of Camille’s winds was published in 2016 by meteorologists Margaret Kieper, Chris Landsea, and John Beven. They estimated that Camille’s maximum sustained winds at landfall were near 170 miles per hour along the coast in Hancock and Harrison County. It is likely that gusts approached or exceeded 200 mph.


With wind speeds well above the 155 mph threshold, that meant that Camille, although a small storm in terms of area, was a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale at the time of landfall. In 1969, only one other hurricane had been a Category 5 at the time of U.S. landfall. That was the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, which struck the Florida Keys.


Since 1969, only two other hurricanes have crossed the U.S. coastline as Category 5 storms. Andrew hit near Miami in 1992, and Michael struck near Panama City, Florida, in 2018.


Although Hurricane Katrina attained Category 5 strength in the Gulf, its winds had weakened to 125 mph, which is Category 3, by the time it made landfall on the Gulf Coast.


It is likely that 50 years ago Camille brought the highest winds in recorded history to south Mississippi.