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Hurricane Camille – a look back

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One of the strongest, most devastating hurricanes to hit the United States mainland hit 49 years ago today. Hurricane Camille blew ashore with winds estimated to be 190 to 200 mph and gusts to 220 mph or higher. Her storm surge was estimated at a whopping 24 feet, and between her arrival as a Category 5 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and her exit off the Virginia coast, she caused 256 deaths and $1.421 billion in damage.

As an exercise in personal curiosity about how the events played out from a meteorologist’s perspective, I spent some time this morning reading all the bulletins issued by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The dates ranged from Thursday, August 14, 1969, when the storm first formed near Grand Cayman to Friday, August 22, when the storm finally lost her identity over the northern Atlantic.

That last part was a surprise to me. As someone who was born several years after the historical hurricane and who spent some of her youth hearing about it while living in Jackson, Mississippi, I realized today there was much more to Camille than I ever knew.

I knew she had done major damage as far north as Jackson, but I didn’t know it was because her sustained winds were still estimated to be around 80 mph as her center passed about 20 miles east of the capitol. I also didn’t realize that 113 of the deaths she caused happened when her remnants passed through the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia the following Tuesday dropping up to 31 inches of rain in some spots and causing flash flooding throughout the region.

By Wednesday afternoon, she moved off the coast of Virginia and actually regained some strength with winds back up to 60 mph, but thankfully remained a shadow of her former self. She continued to cause concern for the shipping industry until she finally fell apart over the colder waters of the North Atlantic on August 22.

While reading the bulletins and advisories which were issued every two to three hours from the time of her formation to about the time her center passed through northern Mississippi, I felt the anxiety the forecasters must have felt as they tracked her progress and tried to predict where she would make landfall. In 1969, meteorologists didn’t have the powerful forecast models that we have today that can predict the potential for tropical storm formation several days before it happens. Storm track and storm surge prediction tools left a lot to be desired.

As late as 1:00 PM on the day Camille made landfall, the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center were predicting a storm surge up to 15 feet. At 3:00 PM, they issued a Special Advisory with updated information and a revised storm surge prediction up to 20 feet. The reality when she made landfall around 11:00 PM was 4 feet higher. On a low-lying coastal plane, four additional feet can make a big difference in how far inland surface-based (as opposed to rainfall-based) flood waters reach.

I can only imagine having less than three days’ notice that a hurricane may hit your country’s coastline, and worse, having less than a day’s notice that your specific area really needs to evacuate before it’s too late. The anxiety that must have been felt by meteorologists, local authorities, and the general public by that Sunday morning had to be unbelievable.

flattened buildings

Image courtesy of NOAA: some of the absolute devastation Hurricane Camille caused on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

The images of the destruction Camille left in her path tell the story of how she took so many lives. High winds, incredibly high storm surge and about ten inches of rain on the Mississippi coast flattened some areas and left others looking like a war zone. While we can’t stop storms like Camille from happening, we can be – and are – much better prepared than they were back then. Our current models aren’t perfect, but with the ability to better predict the track, winds, and storm surge a hurricane may have, our emergency managers and state and local authorities usually have much better lead time to issue evacuation advisories and orders.  As long as the people affected take those notices seriously, they should lead to better protection of life and property, which is the ultimate goal of all meteorologists.