The story of Hurricane Camille’s development

Published 7:00 am Saturday, August 3, 2019

By Skip Rigney

June and July are the first two months of the Atlantic hurricane season. Along with November, they are typically the quietest months of the season. On average only one tropical storm or hurricane is named before August 1st. Tropical cyclones that do form during June and July often originate in either the Gulf of Mexico, near the Bahama Islands, or less frequently in the western Caribbean Sea. Very few of the storms that do form reach major hurricane status.

But by August and September, conditions have changed. Sea surface temperatures across the 4,500 miles of ocean from Africa to the western Caribbean Sea have warmed, and upper level wind shear has weakened. Meteorologists call this the Main Development Region, and over half of all hurricanes and 80 percent of major hurricanes affecting the Atlantic, Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico develop here.

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Warm waters provide the heat and moisture that fuel all tropical cyclones. But even when warm waters are present, the atmosphere is usually relatively stable. Something is needed to lift the air at the surface upward. A “wave,” not in the ocean waters but in the flow of easterly winds blowing along the southern periphery of the Atlantic’s semi-permanent high pressure system, can provide the lower atmospheric pressures and upward air motions needed to get the process started.

On August 5, 1969, meteorologists with the Weather Bureau (which would be renamed the National Weather Service the next year), were analyzing grainy, low-resolution black-and-white satellite photos of the far eastern tropical Atlantic. They noticed an “inverted V” cloud pattern typical of a tropical wave and began tracking it.

For the next week there was nothing unusual about this particular tropical wave as it transited the Atlantic and entered the Caribbean Sea. The satellite images, primitive by today’s standards, did not show much thunderstorm activity or organization. Perhaps it would simply dissipate like most of the 60 or so tropical waves that travel across the Atlantic each season.

But as the wave moved through the Caribbean, the satellite photos and weather observations from ships and nearby land stations indicated that the wave in the wind flow had grown stronger. Two vigorous areas of thunderstorms blossomed, one at the northern end of the wave over the Bahamas, the other south of Cuba. The National Hurricane Center dispatched hurricane hunter aircraft to check out both areas.

On the morning of Thursday, August 14, 1969, Navy pilot Lieutenant Michael Drew and the crew aboard his WC-121N Super Constellation propeller aircraft took off from Jacksonville, Florida, and flew into the disturbed area of south of Cuba. A full blown tropical storm had already formed and was rapidly intensifying. At noon the National Hurricane Center issued its first advisory on Tropical Storm Camille. The cyclone was moving west northwestward toward the western tip of Cuba.

No one could have predicted the history that would be made over the next four days.

Two important sources for the information in this article were the Weather Bureau’s “Special Weather Summary for Mississippi, August, 1969” by Weather Bureau State Climatologist E.J. Saltsman, and “A Reanalysis of Hurricane Camille,” by Margaret Kieper, Christopher Landsea, and John Beven published in 2016.