Predicting Camille 50 years in the past

Published 7:00 am Saturday, August 10, 2019

By Skip Rigney

The medium-range weather models are predicting only a very slim chance of hurricane development in the Atlantic, Carribean or Gulf of Mexico for the next couple of weeks.

Fifty years ago computer weather models were in their infancy. Forecasting more than a few days in advance was still just a dream. The models and the computers used to run them were extremely primitive compared to today’s standards. That was especially true of models used to forecast hurricane tracks.

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That made it even more crucial for hurricane forecasters to gather information about the actual, current state of a hurricane. Satellites were beginning to become useful tools. But by today’s standards, the images were low-resolution, infrequent, and didn’t contain much scientific information.

Back in 1969, the silver bullets in the hurricane forecaster’s arsenal were aircraft reconnaissance flights. That’s why on Thursday, August 14, 1969, the National Hurricane Center requested a Navy aircraft fly into an area of thunderstorms south of Cuba. The crew found a strengthening tropical storm, which the NHC named Camille.

By Friday morning, August 15, 1969, Camille’s winds had increased to hurricane strength. Throughout Thursday and Friday, Camille moved northwestward, eventually skirting the western tip of Cuba and moving into the Gulf of Mexico early on Saturday morning, August 16.

Due to a number of factors, including predictions from the rudimentary computer models of the day, forecasters believed that Camille would gradually turn to the right, taking a more northward course. So, on Saturday morning, August 16, with the eye of Camille over 400 miles south of the coast, the Weather Bureau issued a warning for the Florida panhandle from Fort Walton Beach eastward to south of Tallahassee, meaning forecasters expected hurricane conditions to occur in that area on Sunday, August 17.

At the same time, a Hurricane Watch was issued westward all the way to Biloxi in order to keep residents of those areas on their toes. The Alabama and Mississippi coasts were at some risk, but clearly the focus that Saturday was on the Florida Panhandle.

The NHC’s director, Robert Simpson, was becoming increasingly concerned by the signs of intensification that he saw in satellite images. Simpson wanted aircraft to fly into the eye and check the intensity. Unfortunately, some of the Navy aircraft that Simpson would normally have had at his disposal were busy with Project Stormfury, a research experiment that would eventually conduct cloud seeding in Hurricane Debbie far out in the Atlantic. Jack Williams and Bob Sheets in their book, Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth, tell the story of how Simpson made a special request to the Air Force to make additional weather aircraft available for Camille flights.

What the Air Force plane found that Saturday afternoon was stunning. Camille’s eye had shrunk to a mere five miles wide and maximum winds were 150 miles per hour. When Mississippi residents went to bed Saturday night, August 16, 1969, they may have been uneasy that a powerful hurricane was only 350 miles to their southeast. But, the warnings were still for the Florida Panhandle, because forecasters still anticipated the storm would curve to the right. However, Camille still had not started the right hand turn. And it wouldn’t, until it was too late for Mississippi.