BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - 51 years ago, South Mississippi took a direct hit from one of the most intense hurricanes on record to ever make landfall in the United States.
On the night of August 17-18, 1969, Hurricane Camille made landfall near Waveland as a powerful Category five storm with winds estimated around 175 mph.
Until Hurricane Katrina, Camille held the record for the highest storm surge caused by any storm in the US at 24.6 feet near Pass Christian. For years, it was considered the benchmark for all other storms to be compared to.
The entire length of the Mississippi Coast and in some spots, three or four blocks inland, Camille’s storm surge brought almost nearly complete destruction. To get a better idea of the extent of Camille’s surge, models were used to recreate it.
The Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model is a computerized numerical model developed by the National Weather Service (NWS) to estimate storm surge heights resulting from historical, hypothetical, or predicted hurricanes by taking into account the atmospheric pressure, size, forward speed, and track data. These parameters are used to create a model of the wind field which drives the storm surge.
Radar data was not as accessible as it is now back in 1969. Back then, the Weather Bureau used the Weather Surveillance Radar-1957 (WSR-57). A series of images was pieced together in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society publication, A Reanalysis of Hurricane Camille to create this radar loop, showing the eye of the storm making landfall in Waveland, MS.
A reanalysis of Hurricane Camille concluded that it was the second strongest land-falling hurricane in the United States on record in terms of central minimum pressure. At the time of landfall, it is estimated that the pressure was 900 mb, second only to the Labor Day Hurricane that struck the Florida Keys in 1935.
Over the years, there has been skepticism on how strong the winds were at landfall. Initial estimates were at 190 mph. However, after careful reanalysis of old radar and aircraft data along with damage reports. It was estimated that Camille’s winds were 175 mph at the time of landfall.
The true wind speeds over land will never be known due to lack of weather observations and failure of many weather instruments during the storm. A wind gust of 140 mph was reported in Bay St. Louis. However, records are incomplete. Sustained winds were measured at 81 mph at Keesler Air Force Base with a gust to 129 mph. Picayune had estimated winds of 140 mph. Pascagoula reported sustained winds at 81 mph.
Following the destruction from Hurricane Camille, civil engineer Hebert Saffir, devised at scale to rate how destructive a hurricane could be based on how strong the winds were. Robert Simpson, a former director of the National Hurricane Center made contributions to the scale as well. As a result, the Saffir-Simpson Scale was born.
Camille began as a tropical wave that came off the coast of Africa. According to National Hurricane Center records, the tropical wave tracked west and remained weak and unorganized until it got into the western Caribbean.
On Wednesday, Aug 13, 1969 the tropical wave moved west of Jamaica and became a tropical depression that evening. By the next day it was a tropical storm. The name, Camille.
Camille quickly strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane and made landfall on the far western tip of Cuba on Friday, Aug 15 with winds around 105 mph.
As Camille moved into the Gulf of Mexico it would prove to be a challenging storm to forecast given the lack of data.
According to Dr. Jack Beven from the National Hurricane Center, “the forecasts for Camille were not really that good. They had a very bad bias towards the north. Most of them were aiming more at the Florida Panhandle.”
The tools needed to make better forecasts were simply not good enough back then.
“Airplane passes through it were much less frequent. We did not have satellite estimation techniques to tell us what the intensity was more or less continuously.
As late as Sunday morning Aug 17, the forecast still called for a landfall east of Mississippi. “The hurricane warning that covered Waveland where the eye actually made landfall was only issued 14 hours before the center of the storm actually arrived,” said Beven. Camille continued tracking west of the forecast and made landfall in South Mississippi just before midnight on Aug 17, 1969.