Historic Hurricane Camille hit 50 years ago

Published 7:00 am Saturday, August 17, 2019

By Skip Rigney

When south Mississippians went to bed 50 years ago on Saturday night, Aug. 16, 1969, Camille was 300 miles south-southeast of the Mississippi Coast. The Weather Bureau’s 11 p.m. advisory that night called Camille “extremely dangerous” with maximum winds near 160 mph. For those who had been closely tracking the storm, it must have been unsettling that Camille was still headed north-northwest as it had been all day.

But, as it had in every advisory that day, the Weather Bureau repeated that they “expected a change to a more northerly course.” Northwest Florida was considered most at risk. The Weather Bureau confined its hurricane warnings to the coast between Fort Walton Beach and Tallahassee.

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The next morning, Sunday, Aug. 17, 1969, dawned cloudy with only a gentle northeast breeze in Pearl River County. Residents here and along the Mississippi Coast who tuned in to their radios or televisions that morning found that Camille had still not wavered from its north-northwest motion. By 9 a.m. the Weather Bureau extended hurricane warnings westward all the way to New Orleans.

Later squalls of rain and gusty winds began raking the Mississippi Coast and Pearl River County.

Hurricane-force winds and storm surge slammed Plaquemines Parish late that afternoon as the core of Camille brushed the mouth of the Mississippi River. Camille’s north-northwest forward speed began accelerating, and by 10:00 p.m. the strongest winds were approaching the Mississippi Coast.

Interestingly, radar images from New Orleans show that Camille had both an inner and outer eyewall as it approached the coast. Meteorologists now know that once an intense hurricane’s eye becomes very small, the eyewall begins to collapse and a new outer eyewall forms and begins to contract.

Unfortunately, Camille was intensifying when it made landfall over Waveland and Bay St. Louis. That is the conclusion of a 2016 study by Margaret Kieper of Florida International University, and Christopher Landsea and John Beven of the National Hurricane Center. They estimate Camille’s maximum winds at landfall at 175 mph with a central barometric pressure of 900 millibars. Only the 1935 “Labor Day” hurricane in the Florida Keys has struck the U.S. with higher winds and lower pressure.

An anemometer on one of the test stands at the Mississippi Test Facility (now Stennis Space Center) recorded 100 mph at 11:15 p.m. Then the anemometer broke.

Between about 11:00 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. Camille battered Pearl River County with what were likely the strongest winds ever experienced here. The eye passed east of Picayune, then just west of Poplarville, putting that city on the strong side of the eye. Even though Camille had begun to weaken after landfall, winds in the central and eastern parts of the county almost certainly exceeded 150 mph.

One of the few working anemometers in Camille’s path was in Columbia, thirty miles northwest of Poplarville. It recorded 120 mph winds at 3:08 a.m. just before the eye passed over that city.

At daybreak on Monday, August 18, 1969, the worst weather had moved far inland over central Mississippi. But the previous few hours had changed the Mississippi Coast, and Pearl River County, for years to come.