Fifty years ago, the killer Gulf Coast hurricane ripped apart towns, killing more than 200 people. Camille would change the science around hurricanes forever.
Fifty years ago, a twist of clouds in the Caribbean swirled lazy like cream in coffee but grew into a mass killer in the span of 120 hours.
Camille, a nightmare hurricane born of an unremarkable tropical wave during the dog days of 1969, dug its 175-mph winds into the shallow belly of the Gulf Coast pushing a storm surge two stories high over the Mississippi fringe.
A recorded 143 people died from Camille's initial Aug. 17 assault, many with saltwater in their lungs. Flash floods in Virginia killed another 113.
But out of the death and mountains of debris came a coalescence of ideas that would ultimately save an unknown number of lives as nascent wind and storm surge scales were hurried to completion.
In 1971, the Saffir-Simpson wind scale was adopted. Two years later, it was first used in public alerts to better convey a hurricane's potential wrath.
“The scale was proposed before, but like so many things, it took a disaster like Camille to get the ball rolling,” said Jack Beven, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, who co-authored the 2014 reanalysis of Camille. “The biggest lesson was the need for better storm surge forecasting and a lot of the modern efforts we have going sprang from Camille.”
Camille remains the second strongest hurricane to make landfall in the continental U.S. following the 185-mph Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and ahead of more recent brutes including 1992's Andrew, which came ashore with 165 mph winds, and 2018's Michael, which was packing 160 mph winds at landfall.
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It came during a tragic convergence of an ill-timed hurricane-killing experiment, mechanical misfires, and the technological deficiencies of an emerging satellite era.
It also formed during a super-charged season that produced 18 tropical cyclones, including 12 hurricanes and five major hurricanes. It was the first time since Atlantic cyclones were given names in 1953 that an M-named storm was reached with Martha. (Five storms weren't included in the original reports of the season and remain unnamed.)
“The 1969 season will long remain unique, not only because of the disaster which it brought to the Mississippi, Louisiana, and Middle Atlantic States, but also because of peculiar records set by a number of other storms,” noted the National Hurricane Center's end-of-season summary, which was co-authored by then center director Robert Simpson.
Colorado State University researcher Phil Klotzbach said the temperatures in the tropical Atlantic were near-average or slightly cooler than normal in 1969, but the year marked the end of a decades-long positive phase of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation, or AMO. The AMO is a natural climate phenomenon that can mean a more active period for hurricanes when in its positive phase.
Klotzbach said a lack of wind shear over the Atlantic likely allowed budding systems to grow with impunity.
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“Damaging landfalls were much more common during this time period,” said Hugh Willoughby, a distinguished research professor at Florida International University and former director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division. “The perception was that this was something that needed to be dealt with.”
That's why many of the U.S. Navy's hurricane hunter planes were in Puerto Rico trying to tame Hurricane Debbie with doses of silver iodide while Camille seethed in the Gulf of Mexico. The so-called Project Stormfury was “not nutcase stuff at the time,” said Willoughby, who in 1969 was a meteorology student at the Naval Post Graduate School.
The idea of Project Stormfury was to stimulate what amounted to an eyewall replacement cycle, which temporarily reduces wind speeds.
Later, Willoughby said he would be instrumental in killing the project when he realized from flying into storms himself that eyewall replacement cycles were part of a storm's normal evolution and weren't triggered by the iodide crystals.
With the Navy planes seeding Debbie, only two aging aircraft were left to fly storm missions and both had mechanical problems, according to a history of Hurricane Camille on the Hurricane Research Division's website.
Forecasters monitored the storm with a new infrared sensor mounted on the Nimbus 3 satellite, but disagreed on whether it was weakening or strengthening. A reconnaissance plane was called in from California in the hours before landfall and found Camille had deepened to what is now considered a Category 5 hurricane.
In addition to a muddled forecast strength, the hurricane's path kept creeping west as weather models and computing power ran into the limitations of 1969 technology.
“The result was that the hurricane warning that was issued for where the storm made landfall was put up 14 hours in advance,” Beven said. “It was quite short fused. It was short even for the standard in those days.”
Camille struck at a most vulnerable time – the inky darkness near midnight.
Winds pried apart homes board by board, and what didn't fly away was drowned in the estimated 24.6-foot storm surge honed by the bathymetry of the coastline. Simpson characterized the area near landfall in an Aug. 22, 1969, story as looking like “it had been put through a meat grinder.”
“Even the wooden splinters were not more than a foot long,” he said in the article. “Pass Christian (Mississippi) was swept clean and the debris chewed into a pulp for two to three blocks inland.”
Tequesta resident Jo Nagorka was 9 years old when her family evacuated to higher ground from their Pascagoula, Mississippi, home ahead of Camille.
She stayed up all night watching from unboarded windows as tranformers exploded in the darkness. While her family's home was left mostly unscathed, she saw the ruins of what Camille wrought - houses flattened, 200-year-old trees wrenched from the earth, cement blocks tossed like Legos.
“It was just very bizarre, and the rest of my life I've always been terrified of hurricanes,” she said. “When a hurricane comes, I just don't stay.”
Jamie Rhome, a storm surge specialist with the National Hurricane Center, said there isn't a direct correlation between current storm surge technology and Camille, but that the devastating hurricane did motivate the first wave of surge modeling.
Engineer Herb Saffir is credited with developing the wind ratings on the Saffir-Simpson scale while working with Simpson. Simpson used an experimental surge model calls SPLASH for the first time in Camille.
But Rhome said it wasn't until 2008's Hurricane Ike scraped homes from their foundations on the Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston, Texas, that forecasters realized they had a communication problem.
“People on the Peninsula were having to be rescued because they said they had no idea they were vulnerable to storm surge, and that was a very eye-opening experience for us,” Rhome said. “Camille helped usher in a revolution in modeling and science. The communication part came after Ike.”
The hurricane center now issues storm surge watches and warnings – alerts that are credited in part with the lack of storm surge deaths during the 2017 hurricane season when three Category 4 cyclones hit the continental U.S. or Puerto Rico.
Still, Camille keeps secrets.
While a 2014 reanalysis reduced Camille's land-falling wind speeds from an initial estimate of 190 mph to 175 mph, Beven said they'll never know for certain what the winds were that night.
Also, based on central pressure measurements, Camille was strengthening at landfall - an unusual occurrence for Gulf storms that more typically weaken as they approach the coast, according to the 2014 reanalysis.
And there are still lessons to learn.
Camille killed 113 in freshwater flooding from torrential rains in Virginia.
Sixty-five people died in freshwater flooding during 2017's Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane Florence in 2018 killed 17 people in freshwater floods. And in 2011, 21 people died in rainfall-induced flooding during Hurricane Irene.
“Just because we haven't solved all the problems doesn't mean we should lose track of how much we've improved,” Beven said. “While we still struggle with some of the same problems as 50 years ago, we have made some significant strides.”
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