Hurricane Camille Report


Thirty Years After Hurricane Camille:
Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost


Roger A. Pielke, Jr., Chantal Simonpietri, and Jennifer Oxelson

12 July 1999



Thirty years ago, Hurricane Camille struck the United States Gulf Coast with an unprecedented fury. Camille, a Saffir/Simpson Category 5 storm, was the strongest storm to directly strike the United States in the twentieth century. After wreaking havoc along the Gulf Coast, Camille's remnants deposited a tremendous amount of rain in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, causing further damage. All told, Camille caused more than 200 deaths and billions of dollars in damage. In its aftermath, the storm was called the greatest catastrophe ever to strike the United States and perhaps the most significant economic weather event in the world's history.

For many, Camille is a distant memory, an historical footnote from a time long gone. But Camille is also a harbinger of disasters to come. Another storm of Camille's intensity will strike the United States, the only question is when. When this future storm strikes, it will make landfall over conditions drastically different from those in 1969. The hurricane-prone regions of the United States have developed dramatically as people have moved to the coast and the nation's wealth has grown. Estimates of potential losses from a single hurricane approach $100 billion.

This report, and the web site of which it is a part, takes advantage of the thirtieth anniversary of Camille's landfall to raise awareness about the hurricane hazard facing the United States. This report reviews the Camille experience with an eye to lessons learned and lessons lost from that event. The subtext of this report is that many of the lessons of Camille have been relearned in subsequent hurricane impacts with hurricanes Agnes, Frederic, Alicia, Hugo, Andrew, Opal, and so forth. For the most part, society acknowledges its need to improve response to hurricanes. The greatest challenge we face is to turn that knowledge into practical action. Another storm like Camille might open a window of opportunity to improve the nation's hurricane policies, but it would be far better if, instead of waiting for that future storm, we learned the lessons that history has already provided.

This report proceeds in four sections (after Pielke and Pielke 1997). Section I reviews the forecasts of the storm's approach and the subsequent evacuation. Section II examines the impacts of the storm, both along the Gulf Coast and in the Appalachian Mountains. Section III provides a review of the response to the event, and Section IV distills a number of the lessons learned. For those wishing to learn more about Camille, or hurricanes more generally, several bibliographies are included on this web site. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the NOAA Coastal Services Center in the development of this site. NCAR is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.


Report Abstract
Report References
Report Figures
Report Tables
Report Section I: Forecast
Report Section II: Impacts
Report Section III: Response
Report Section IV: Lessons Learned


I. Forecast

History and Description

With satellite imagery, forecasters identified a typical tropical wave off the coast of Africa on August 5, 1969. On August 9, the system was about 480 miles east of the Caribbean's leeward islands. Five days later, the pilot of a Navy reconnaissance plane observed a central pressure of 29.50 inches of mercury and surface winds of 55 mph (USACE 1970). Forecasters classified Camille as a tropical storm located 60 miles west of Grand Cayman Island, 480 miles south of Miami (Figure 1).

Early on Friday, August 15, Camille developed into a small but potent hurricane with a northwesterly track of about 9 mph. As Camille moved toward western Cuba, that afternoon, winds reached 115 mph, with gale-force winds extending out 125 to 150 miles to the north of the center and 50 miles to the south (USACE 1970) (Table 1). A bulletin issued by the National Hurricane Center at 3 p.m. on August 15 distinguished Camille as the most intense hurricane since Beulah in 1967 (ESSA, 1969a). Camille weakened slightly over Cuba, generating 92-mph winds, and releasing 10 inches of rain over western sections of the island.

Hurricane Camille regained strength as it reached the warm Gulf of Mexico waters, moving at about 10 mph in a north-northwesterly direction. Early Saturday August 16, with Camille located about 420 miles south of Panama City, Florida, forecasters issued a hurricane watch for the Gulf coast from Biloxi, Mississippi, to St. Marks, Florida (USACE 1970). By 11 o'clock Saturday morning, the winds had increased to 115 mph, with hurricane-force winds extending about 40 miles from the center and gales extending out 150 miles. At this time, officials issued hurricane warnings for the northwest Florida coast from Fort Walton Beach to St. Marks (USACE 1970). Reconnaissance aircraft on late Saturday afternoon indicated the storm was slowing in its course and intensifying rapidly. Maximum winds were estimated at 150 mph near the center, then located about 380 miles south of Fort Walton Beach. By Saturday evening, Camille's forward speed had increased to about 12 mph near the center, and hurricane winds extended 50 miles in all directions (USACE 1970).

On Sunday, August 17, Camille was located 250 miles south of Mobile, Alabama. Officials issued hurricane warnings, already in effect for the Florida panhandle, to include the Alabama and Mississippi coasts to Biloxi. The Weather Bureau alerted communities, now affected by the watch and the warnings, and the tempo of preparation increased. Camille continued to move toward the mouth of the Mississippi River and by 9 a.m. hurricane warnings had been issued for the all the Mississippi coast as far west as New Orleans and Grand Isle (USACE 1970). About 15 hours before landfall, National Hurricane Center forecasters warned, “Present indications are that the center of Camille will pass close to the mouth of the Mississippi River late this afternoon and move inland on the Mississippi coast tonight" (ESSA, 1969a). At 3 p.m., warnings east of Apalachicola, Florida, were discontinued. At this time, the storm was located about 120 miles southeast of New Orleans and was expected to pass close to the mouth of the Mississippi River late in the afternoon.

The last reconnaissance flight was made early Sunday afternoon, and the crew recorded a central pressure of 26.61 inches (901 mb) and clocked maximum winds at more than 200 mph near the center (USACE 1970). Hurricane-force winds extended 60 miles from the center and gales outward about 180 miles. The storm was now at its peak and was located less than 100 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. No hurricane this intense had ever struck the mainland of the United States in recorded history.

By 7 p.m., Camille was 60 miles south of Gulfport, moving north-northwest about 15 mph and was expected to move inland near Gulfport that evening (USACE 1970) (Figure 2). An offshore drilling rig was raked by winds estimated to be about 170 miles per hour. Three barrier islands off the coast separate the Mississippi Sound from the Gulf of Mexico, normally providing some buffer from landfalling storms, but during Camille, these islands were ravaged by the storm's power. Two islands lost more than 300 acres to erosion, and the third, Ship Island, was breached (Leyden 1985). On the Mississippi shore, the wind increased until 10 p.m., its sound a continuous roar (ESSA, 1969a).


The wide range of possible landfall locations greatly complicated preparation efforts. Figure 3 shows the forecast displacement errors. By official estimates, 81,000 out of 150,000 people in the evacuation area were moved to safety. In the early hours of Sunday morning, 18 hours before landfall, some residents began boarding up homes and businesses, and a trickle of vehicles moved north. (ESSA, 1969a). As the threat to the low-lying coastline became evident, the trickle of evacuees became a flood. People hastily loaded what few belongings they could carry and fled.

In the hours immediately prior to landfall, evacuation was impossible due to a number of of low-lying (eventually swamped) bridges. Local officials appeared on radio and television stations to point out the danger and to plead with people reluctant to abandon their homes (ESSA, 1969a). Police and Civil Defense officials went through the areas of special hazard to individually contact them. The need to remove everyone from the tidal beaches was urgent and, in at least one case, arrests were made in a desperate move to save lives (ESSA, 1969a).

Although the warnings for Camille evacuation were judged largely successful by local officials, confusion existed between the public and forecasters. Confusion surrounded the predicted landfall area of Camille until as late as Sunday night, only 4-6 hours prior to landfall. Many people had retired for the night Sunday, convinced that the storm would veer north into the Florida panhandle, or at least into Alabama as predicted (Wilkinson and Ross 1970, p. 24). Most people relied primarily on radio and television, then on communication with relatives as an information source.

Yet, the location along the coast greatly influenced what information was received, as broadcasts varied, depending upon their source. Pass Christian residents generally received information from New Orleans television rather than from Biloxi, which was watched by many residents to the east. The messages coming from different sources led to dire consequences and likely resulted in many misinformed residents remaining in their homes when they should have evacuated. The New Orleans listeners (in Pass Christian and Long Beach) did not receive the detailed, localized interpretations of the warnings provided by the local officials at Biloxi (Wilkinson and Ross 1970). Wilkinson and Ross (1970) provides an example where a “highly emotional plea to get out" was being issued over Biloxi television Sunday, as a newscaster in New Orleans was reported to have read only the general forecast and then returned to broadcasting music. Another example from Wilkinson and Ross (1970) tells of an out-of-town radio station re-running earlier bulletins, even after new ones had been broadcast over another station. Weather bulletins said accurately that the hurricane would strike land “near Gulfport," but the urgency to low-lying areas was conveyed only in messages from local newscasters.


II. Impacts


Camille made landfall shortly before midnight in the Bay St. Louis area (USACE 1970). At this time, the eye of the storm was about 12 miles in diameter and crossed almost directly over the town of Waveland at a forward speed of 15 mph. The great volume of water moving inland up the Jourdan River floodplain was typical of other estuary streams along the coast. The volume flowing inland at the tide crest was estimated to have been at least 90,000 cfs. This volume is more than three times the flood discharge expected on the Jourdan River on the average of once in 50 years (Hudson 1970).

Camille's intensity in Harrison County was compounded by the geography of the area in which sections of the county were inundated from both the north and south (Leyden 1985). Maps depicting the extent of flooding show that the community of Pass Christian and parts of Biloxi were completely inundated by flood waters. Storm waters rose to 22.6 feet at Pass Christian, 17 feet behind Pass Christian, 21.6 feet at Long Beach, 21 feet at Gulfport, 19.5 feet at Biloxi, and 15 feet on the Biloxi Bay (USACE 1970) (Figure 4).

Although warnings were posted, there were a number of persons who were thought to be safe when they were not. A local minister's wife was swept to her death as tides destroyed the 100-year old church where she and her husband sought protection (Figure 5). Another woman climbed into the rafters of her mother's house along with seventeen other adults and thirteen children to escape the rising waters. The ladder on which they climbed was later used to pull two people to safety. Another family in a beachfront house sat in their downstairs living room watching the storm until water seeped in under the door. A mop, then towels, then a rug were used to try to stop the flow. The husband opened the door and was swept across the room by a surging wave. As the lower floor filled with water, the family retreated upstairs where adults gave instructions to children on where to go should they survive (Wilkinson and Ross 1970).

At the Weather Observatory at Boothville, Louisiana, just north of Venice, five weathermen were prepared to ride out the storm and make detailed observations. The observatory was designed to withstand hurricane conditions, and the structure had been built on prestressed concrete pilings with the main floor 12 feet above ground. Emergency power was operating, and radio contact was maintained with the Hurricane Forecast Center in New Orleans. At about 6:40 p.m., a pressure of 959.7 mb was recorded. About the same time, the wind-speed equipment became inoperative after having indicated wind gusts to 107 mph. Soon after, one meteorologist noticed that the water was rising rapidly and had reached the catwalk just below the floor of the observatory. Shortly after, the water rushed into the building. The emergency generator room was flooded, and the weathermen lost all contact with the outside world. They sought refuge in the electronics shop, and the water continued to rise until it was chest-deep on some observers. They lost all track of time, and it was several hours before the water began to recede (Rohlfs 1969) (Figure 6).

Sea going vessels and small craft alike were swept inland and deposited among the remnants of buildings. A large diesel fuel barge was lifted out of the harbor, carried ashore, and deposited on the medial strip between the east and west lanes of US Highway 90. Farther up on the beach, a large oil storage tank floated several miles from its original position (Rohlfs 1969). Eyewitnesses reported that the storm surge remained ashore very briefly -- only for some 20-30 minutes -- sucking a large amount of debris back into the Gulf of Mexico with astonishing speed (ESSA, 1969a).

The strongest winds east of the eye struck between Pass Christian and Long Beach, Mississippi. Destruction in this area was almost complete (Figure 7). One survivor reported that she was invited by friends concerned for her safety to leave a safe location and move into an apartment building (Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian). This apartment building occupied a low site formerly known as the “rice field." It was destroyed and 21 lives were lost (Wilkinson and Ross 1970) (Figure 8). A total of about 150 people died along the Gulf Coast during Camille's passage.

There were no records of winds near the eye of the storm, but estimates ranged up to 190 mph. The tidal surge reached an unprecedented height of 22.6 feet above mean sea level at Pass Christian and was nearly 6 feet above mean sea level as far east as Gulf Shores, Alabama (USACE 1970). Near the west end of the Bay St. Louis bridge, of 26.85 inches of pressure was recorded. Rainfall over southern Mississippi, southeastern Louisiana, and southwestern Alabama averaged from 2 to 6 inches, with a, maximum of 10 inches in Hancock County and 10.6 inches in Hattiesburg (USACE 1970).


The storm began to weaken as it moved northward across Mississippi. As Camille passed Jackson, Mississippi on August 18, the pressure fell to 28.93 inches, with winds gusts to 67 mph (USACE 1970). Identifiable circulation continued into southern Quitman County. Thereafter, the storm weakened rapidly and became a tropical depression before reaching the northern Mississippi border (USACE 1970).

The Virginia Floods

Camille's remnants moved north-northeastward through central Kentucky and eastward through extreme southern West Virginia and southern Virginia. As Camille reached Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, it encountered large masses of moisture-laden air and again became active (OEP 1969). Late Tuesday August 19, the tropical depression produced torrential rainfall that caused flash floods and landslides along the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and record flooding in Virginia's James River watershed (USACE 1970).

The heavy rains began about 7 p.m. on August 19 and continued without a decrease in intensity for the next eight hours. By 10 p.m., a band of rain and thunderstorms some 40 to 50 miles wide extended in a general east-west orientation from the vicinity of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to Fredericksburg, Virginia (Figure 9). Around midnight, the low-pressure center intensified as it moved eastward into Virginia along a track south of Roanoke and Lynchburg (ESSA, 1969b). Rainfall to the north and east of the low-pressure center increased rapidly along the western slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with more than 10 inches accumulating at Clifton Forge, Virginia. The rainfall continued to intensify on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains until it reached catastrophic proportions (ESSA, 1969b).

The rains, flash floods, and rain-induced landslides accompanying the storm's passage led to the worst natural disaster ever to strike Virginia (Figure 10). Most of the residents of the mountain hollows, hamlets, and towns were asleep during the fatal hours of the storm. Little warning was possible -- only one report of excessive rain was received by the Weather Bureau during the night from a cooperative observer (DeAngelis 1969). Rapidly rising streams and landslides caused by the rainfall not only destroyed homes as the occupants slept, but communication lines and roads were destroyed, preventing downstream inhabitants from being alerted. Large uprooted trees acted as battering rams, crashing through houses and overturning automobiles.

As of September 8, 1969, the state had counted 107 dead and 102 injured. The majority of death and damages occurred in Nelson County, Virginia. Of the 313 houses destroyed, 250 were located in Nelson County. Of the 415 houses suffering major damage, 225 of these were located in this county. Of the 153 people dead or missing in Virginia, 126 were residents of Nelson County – a little more than 1 percent of the county's population; 54 people were killed along a 4-mile stretch of Davis Creek and Huffman's Hollow (DeAngelis 1969). Communications, including roads, were completely destroyed in many communities (Figure 11). After the flood, only one highway in Virginia was intact. Some 133 bridges were destroyed or damaged, and 25 miles of primary and 175 miles of secondary roads were obliterated, with damages totaling $19 million (DeAngelis 1969).

By Wednesday afternoon, the storm moved off the Atlantic coast east of Norfolk and regained tropical-storm intensity (USACE 1970). By Friday August 22, it merged with a frontal system and lost its identity as a tropical storm some 175 miles southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland, and quietly drifted out to sea, leaving in its wake billions of dollars in damages and more than 250 dead (USACE 1970).

Economic Damages

Hurricane Camille caused significant damage to much of the United States Gulf Coast and Virginia. The most severely damaged areas (Figure 12) included the southeastern portion of Louisiana, including Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the southwestern portion of Alabama along the Gulf. Additional damage occurred well inland from the coast in all three Gulf states. In Virginia, significant rainfall produced catastrophic flooding in the James River Basin. Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson Counties of Mississippi, and Mobile and Baldwin Counties of Alabama, suffered the most severe damage and garnered the most in-depth evaluation following the storm.

Economic impacts can be summarized in three areas: immediate damages, relief costs, and recovery costs. The immediate damages included damage to homes, cars, personal belongings, and roads, as a result of the wind or water associated with the storm during its landfall and overland stages. Relief costs encompass the efforts put forth by various federal and non-federal agencies to provide emergency services such as housing in the months following the storm. Recovery costs are more long-term than immediate damages or relief costs. These costs include the loss of taxable property value and tax revenue due to depressed economic development. Recovery costs may also include the value of funds provided to rebuild farms, roads, homes, and industries. These three areas of impact do not include overlapping costs. When totaled they provide an assessment of the economic impact of Hurricane Camille. Of course, not all damages are accounted for with economic losses, e.g., psychological impacts or environmental damages.

The direct and immediate damages from Hurricane Camille are shown in Tables 2 and 3. They were generated from information gathered during an in-depth examination by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the coastal district in the days immediately following landfall (USACE 1970). The Army compiled a comprehensive damage record incurred to the coastal counties within the Mobile District. Their report does not document damage in Louisiana, Virginia, or inland counties within Mississippi and Alabama. Other counties had significant damages, but a detailed breakdown is not available. The damages suffered by those regions excluded from the Engineers report are included in the aggregate totals for the states or Districts.

The tables provide a summary of damages, divided by categories, to the five primary counties. These damages are divided into those which occurred either inside or outside of the flooded area. The total cost of the relief effort is included in Table 2. The total statewide damage cost to Louisiana and Virginia is also included in Table 2.

Recovery Costs

Recovery costs include the financial impact to local governments from loss of revenue, drop in property value of tracts located along the beachfront, building permit fees, and the temporal lag following the storm. Many of these costs take place over several years or decades. Some examples of community specific costs, from Leyden's Recovery and Reconstruction after Hurricane Camille, are outlined below.

  • Removal of storm-damaged property from tax rolls in Harrison County pushed total municipal revenues $3.7 million below operating expenses in a two-year period following Hurricane Camille
  • 30% of taxable property was lost in the community of Long Beach, and 70% was lost in Pass Christian.
  • Total loss of tax revenue in Pass Christian was $5 million.
  • Assessed value of property in Long Beach dropped 23% from 1969-1970 to 1970-1971.

    Assessed Property Value
    1969-1970 1970-1971 1971-1972
    $11,911,910 $9,165,940 $12,397,620

  • Building permit fees in Gulfport increased by 347% during 1969-1970.
  • Estimated Federal disaster relief funds totaled $750 million. These costs reflect the structural damage suffered by the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast.

By totaling the results from Tables 2 and 3, a total cost value for Hurricane Camille is determined to be $1.122 billion (1969 dollars), which compares to the National Weather Service's official cost value of $1.420 billion. The discrepancy between total cost values may occur for a number of reasons: The Engineers' report does not provide complete data for Mobile and Baldwin Counties. The damages to Louisiana are reported as a lump sum incurred in the New Orleans “District" (USACE 1970, p. 74). The geographical area of that district may affect the cost value given for the state. Another significant discrepancy may be the exclusion of Florida damage values. The map of the county impact area includes flood damage to two Florida counties, Escambia and Santa Rosa. Yet, no Florida damage values are included in any economic impact statement for Hurricane Camille.

Structural Damage

On Monday, August 18, 1969, survivors emerged from shelters and observed skeletal foundations and remnants of buildings left by the storm (Figure 13). Residents of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, returned to see all traces of civilization removed by a massive tidal surge washing over the Mississippi River levees (ESSA, 1969a). In the community of Buras along the Mississippi, six structures remained standing in an area where 6000 people had previously made their homes.

Hurricane Camille caused incredible damage to the buildings and structures along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, particularly to the waterfront areas of Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson Counties. Damage in the Mississippi Delta area was caused primarily by high water from the Gulf of Mexico. Some wind damage was evident, but the effects were secondary to the damage resulting from wind-driven waves on the surface of the storm surge (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 16). The most intense damage from Camille was sustained in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, and in the first several blocks inland along a 27-mile segment of shore between St. Louis Bay and Biloxi Bay. Many structures were completely leveled along certain sections of the coast (Figure 14). Based on Red Cross survey data, the impact of Hurricane Camille on property in Mississippi and Louisiana is summarized below (OEP 1969, p. 79):

5,662 homes destroyed

13,915 homes with major damage

33,933 homes with minor damage

1,082 mobile homes destroyed

621 mobile homes with major damage

775 farm buildings destroyed

2,289 farm buildings with major damage

679 small businesses destroyed or with major damage

In addition, 32 boats were destroyed or severely damaged; at least five trucking terminals were completely destroyed, with damage to highways, bridges, railways and waterways running into millions of dollars (ESSA, 1969a). The port of Gulfport was almost completely destroyed, with at least 94 vessels sunk or grounded in the Mississippi River (Figures 15 and 16). Oil rigs foundered, pipelines were smashed, and land bases were destroyed. Enormous agricultural losses in crops, timberland, tung, pecan, and orange trees occurred, with some 5,000 head of cattle drowned (ESSA, 1969a). The majority of the damage to structures occurred in an area parallel to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and extending inland up to several blocks.

The extent of damage along the coast depended largely on local topography; some areas having greater elevation, were less exposed than others. Due to the circulation of Camille, the wind in the coastal areas changed direction numerous times. This change was partially responsible for the appearance of complete destruction in certain coastal areas. The tidal rise and wave action came from the south to southeast (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 17). The upper extent of vigorous wave action could be seen on tree trunks; the bark was torn off the seaward side of many trees at a height of 12 to 15 feet (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 18). The most heavily damaged areas along the Mississippi Gulf Coast included the Pass Christian vicinity, parts of Long Beach, and local waterfront areas between Biloxi and Gulfport (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 17) (Figure 17).

The coastal area along U.S. Highway 90 sustained significant damage (Figure 18). This area had previously been built up with a variety of construction types, including many large, old residences and several multistory hotels, motels, and apartments, as well as gasoline stations, restaurants, and retail stores (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 18). Many of the motels and apartments were completely leveled. Some of the older multistory buildings remained standing, although they sustained extensive damage to the lower stories. The first floors of many of the buildings, except for the framework, were completely demolished due to high water and the pounding of waves.

The downtown area of Gulfport and inland coastal areas had only relatively small amounts of structural damage. Some windows and signs were broken in the downtown area of Gulfport, and many first-floor areas suffered significant water damage (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 18). Other areas within Gulfport suffered window damage and destroyed roofs. Isolated pockets of residences inland were heavily damaged, with some homes leveled.

Building Codes

In the region affected by Camille, some modifications had been made to building standards following the severe hurricanes of Audrey (1957) and Betsy (1965). These preparatory measures included the “open beaches" decision which maintained an artificial sand beach south of Highway 90 and the seawall. Biloxi had enforced a local building code since a particularly severe hurricane caused significant damage in 1911. In 1965, after another major hurricane, Biloxi, Gulfport, and Long Beach adopted the Southern Standard Building Code. In addition, an informal standard of 10 feet above mean sea level was used as a guide by architects and the Federal Housing Authority as a criteria for mortgages (Leyden 1985). Despite these measures, a uniform building code with hurricane-related stipulations had not been adopted by the coastal counties. Had a code been implemented in the years before Hurricane Camille, the damages would have been less.

For the entire length of the Mississippi coast extending three to four blocks inland, the destruction from Hurricane Camille was almost complete. Residences, motels, apartments, restaurants, and other buildings were swept off their foundations, demolished, and deposited in piles of scrap lumber and rubble together with fallen trees, smashed automobiles, and grounded boats (USACE 1970, p. 65) (Figure 19). Only a stairway remained from a house designed by a local architect to be “hurricane proof". The designer's body and those of several of his friends who had attempted to wait out the storm in his house were found 45 days later (Leyden 1985, p. 4). The survival of various structures depended largely upon design and materials used for construction. Some types of structures withstood the wind and water impacts far greater than others.

Many commercial buildings and apartment complexes along the Gulf Coast were constructed with masonry block structure. These structures generally did not withstand the water and wind (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 19). A large number of buildings collapsed totally with little evidence remaining to indicate the original appearance of the structure. (Figure 20). Light steel or concrete frame buildings were adequate; often the frame was still standing, but the walls and roof had collapsed. Heavier frame and masonry structures, such as multistory hotels in downtown areas, sustained only superficial damage to windows, signs, and awnings. Nearly all piers and boat docks along the Gulf Coast were completely destroyed (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 22). Piling is generally all that remained of the piers. However, the seawall extending along US Highway 90 sustained little damage. Levees were breached or washed out in many areas on the Mississippi River (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 22).

Many concrete and steel structures collapsed, whereas the less rigid wooden structures were more successful. The topography had a large influence on wooden frame buildings. Those that were more exposed were often leveled or destroyed (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 20). The older wooden buildings were better constructed, and so functioned as a unit, whereas the unconsolidated masonry structures collapsed (Zornig and Sherwood 1969, p. 14). The design mechanisms utilized in construction of the older wooden buildings also paid closer attention to structural integrity of the materials they were using. This in turn created buildings with very high safety factors (Criswell and Cummins 1970, p. 20).


III. Response

Federal, State and Local Response

Throughout the day immediately following the storm, many agencies and volunteer groups aided the thousands of residents whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged. Thousands of displaced persons were provided shelter, food, clothing, and medicine by various federal, state, and local agencies and by donations through relief organizations (USACE 1970, p. 32). These actions are summarized in Table 4.

On August 19, the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) announced that the President had declared portions of Mississippi and Louisiana to be major disaster areas and therefore eligible for federal disaster relief funds. OEP then took over the coordination of the numerous relief agencies and instructed the Mobile District to begin the process of cleanup of debris and temporary repairs to the public facilities not included within the federal jurisdiction (USACE 1970, p. 71). There were 8 agencies involved extensively in the post-storm relief process, and 17 other agencies who were involved to a lesser extent. The activities of the eight major agencies are described below; the response of all involved agencies outlined in Table 4.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided mobile homes to house the victims as soon as authority was given. Despite difficulties in transportation, failure of suppliers, problems of site clearance, and restoration of water and sewage services, about 5,000 mobile homes were delivered (USACE 1970, p. 71). Victims of the storm began moving in one week after Camille hit. Over 3,000 of the mobile homes delivered were used in Mississippi.

The Department of Defense contributed greatly to the relief process, with a total of 16,500 military personnel from numerous divisions (OEP 1969, p. 9). The Army aided in helicopter rescue operations removing people from locations cut off from all other access. Army personnel also brought much-needed food, medical supplies, and potable water for the thousands of displaced people. Battalions cleared 575 miles of roads and removed more than 37,000 tons of debris (OEP 1969, p. 10). The Army Corps of Engineers alone removed 1 ¼ million tons of debris by mid-November, culminating a $49 million (1969 US dollars) operation (OEP 1969, p. 13).

The Department of the Treasury responded quickly to the financial concerns and demands of the communities affected by the hurricane. Emergency offices, at a cost of $20,000 (1969 dollars), were established to disburse checks to those receiving rehabilitation loans. Through December 10, 1969, 75,000 checks were delivered, totaling $25 million (1969 dollars) in rehabilitation loans (OEP 1969, p. 5). The Treasury also allowed redemption of savings bonds in advance of the normal waiting period. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) distributed information on casualty deductions, offered assistance and counseling, and arranged for speedy refunds to special claims in the 1970 filing period (OEP 1969, p. 7).

The Community Relations Service (CRS), a division of the Department of Justice, acted as a vital link between the survivors and the available resources arriving in the affected area. CRS placed 400 emergency telephone calls between survivors and concerned family members throughout the rest of the country and world. Employees of CRS acquired, stored, and distributed 30-50 tons of bedding that survived the storm in the Hotel Biloxi (OEP 1969, p. 20). CRS also arranged for storage and distribution of 40,000 textbooks donated by New York School Districts (OEP 1969, p. 21). In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation assisted the coroner in the processing of 30 unidentified victims.

The Department of Agriculture responded immediately to the growing pest problem which developed following the hurricane. The Plant Pest Control Division (PPC) was called upon to mitigate growing numbers of mosquitoes and flies, but the lack of phone lines obstructed communication between outside agencies and the PPC. The home telephone of the PPC administrator provided a key link between Gulfport and the outside world. Fire ants moving from flooded areas to higher grounds became a major problem, stinging survivors, rescue workers, and invading homes. Over 2.5 million US $ (1969 dollars) of emergency conservation funds were allocated to rehabilitate farmlands and replace damaged conservation structures (OEP 1969, p. 30). In addition, as of November 28, 1969, the Farmers Home Administration had approved 353 out of 661 emergency loan applications from Mississippi farmers, totaling almost 3 million dollars (OEP, 1969, pg 32).

The Department of Commerce was closely involved with the plans for economic rehabilitation of damaged communities. The Economic Development Administration (EDA) did extensive economic planning and development work to deal with the sudden rise in unemployment, as well as to plan and coordinate the redevelopment following the hurricane. Following the hurricane, some 28 public works and business loan projects totaling $30 million (1969 dollars) had been identified for further consideration for EDA assistance (OEP 1969, p. 37). Immediately following Hurricane Camille, the Weather Bureau with the Department of Defense began a study of ways to better predict the direction and intensity of hurricanes. This study was spurred by Vice President Agnew's statement that Hurricane Camille forecasting may have been inadequate.

The Department of Health furnished more than $ 4 million in materials, services, and funds to the stricken areas (OEP 1969, p. 42). Cots, blankets, typhoid vaccines, and other medications were supplied to the survivors. The Food and Drug Administration spent more than 1500 man hours surveying the Mississippi food establishments to ensure safety and proper health codes. The Health Department also brought in temporary classrooms to aid the 21 local school districts which received damage from the hurricane.

The American Red Cross played a key role in providing some semblance of comfort and accommodations to the displaced people. Shelters for 85,000 people were established prior to the storm. Relief centers manned by volunteers were accessible after the storm to provide financial assistance and services such as food stamp disbursement to the victims. In total, 913 volunteers and 805 professional staff members were assigned to the affected area (OEP 1969, p. 79). Red Cross personnel questioned the survivors for an inventory of deaths, damages, and to determine what assistance was necessary. The cumulative Red Cross relief operation totaled almost 15 million US $ (1969 dollars) (OEP 1969, p. 82).


The damages caused by Hurricane Camille have been examined by several people in the interest of reducing the vulnerability of the coastal counties (Leyden 1985; Godschalk et al. 1989; Metasystems 1970; Petak and Atkisson 1982; Black 1970; Dikkers et al. 1971). Prior to Hurricane Camille, many of the Gulf Coast communities did not have any planning or zoning in place. The development and building practices in existence at the time of Camille had been greatly influenced by the gradual uncontrolled and disorganized growth which had taken place in the coastal communities for the previous 100 years (Leyden 1985). Many buildings existed in areas vulnerable to possible storm surge. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) had very recently been passed and was in its infant stages of implementation. Therefore, no properties were covered under this plan. Of the total damages resulting from Hurricane Camille, only 20% were covered by existing flood insurance (Leyden 1985, p. 32).

Many of the buildings were poorly constructed to withstand the high winds and wave action natural to hurricanes. Leyden (1985) found that conventional construction of any type proved to be inadequate to resist the storm surge and accompanying wave action. Evacuation routes had been planned, but in Harrison County many extended over low-lying bridges which were eventually inundated by the high waters of Camille. Coastal Highway 90 was flooded to depths of 12 feet, and both the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge and the Pass Christian-Bay St. Louis Bridge were washed out (USACE 1970). In addition, only 50% of inhabitants (50,000) evacuated (USACE 1970). This left a large portion of the coastal population at risk in their own homes or shelters (15,562 in emergency shelters, 50,000 stayed at home) (USACE 1970).

A massive rebuilding effort took place in the months and years following the hurricane. Ironically, hurricane mitigation was not a key thought to those rebuilding immediately after Camille. A need for structures to live and work out of led to a rapid rebuilding effort. The same characteristics which led to absolute destruction of homes and businesses were repeated in the months immediately following the hurricane. Confusion immediately following Camille allowed unregulated repairs and rebuilding. Building permits were initially waived, then a non-uniform moratorium was imposed, then lifted again, prior to the new building code being in place (Godschalk et al.1989, p. 59). Once the new building code was imposed it helped raise Gulfport revenues from building permit fees by 347% in 1969-1970 (Leyden 1985, p. 31).

The building code was not enforced in many locations where previously poor construction led to complete destruction of homes. The implementation of the code was adopted by municipalities at various times throughout 1969 and 1970. Leyden (1985) remarked that the inability of people involved in the development of the code and the regional enforcement scheme contributed to the inefficiency of, and lack of acceptance for, the program. Godschalk et al. (1989) proposes that “all new structures built within the affected counties must meet a lateral wind force standard equivalent to three times that of the 1973 Universal Building Code."

The rebuild of the Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama Gulf Coast following Hurricane Camille could have acted as an impetus to develop a coastal community development plan allowing for economic growth and resurgence, and guaranteeing preparedness in the event of a repeat storm of equal magnitude. Rather than supporting unchecked growth with no regard for future hazard mitigation, development could have been steered in a direction that was conscious of the vulnerability of local residents and communities. Hazard mitigation policies might have been adopted at the county or state level, thereby eliminating the discrepancy in level of preparedness between coastal municipalities.

Leyden (1985) found that the introduction of development management by regional authorities and the state and federal governments was politically unpopular, but “crucial to the acceptance of even the barest minimum of land use regulation after the storm." Leyden also proposed that legislation which enables states might have improved planning to the affected counties.

Hurricane Camille decimated buildings at Henderson Point with waves up to 22.4 feet above mean sea level. Yet, in 1984 a 69-unit condominium project was built on land leveled during Hurricane Camille at Henderson Point (Leyden 1985, p. 73). This project is built as a replica of the old Biloxi Yacht Club on the south side of Highway 90 in a location where the original building was washed away by Hurricane Camille.

Godschalk et al. (1989) recommended that new waterfront construction be restricted only to water-dependent uses. In addition, he suggested that the existing uses on the Gulf side of Highway 90 be designated as non-conforming, in order to bring about their eventual elimination. Many municipalities along the Gulf Coast have showed some support for movement away from development concentrated upon the coast. Commercial and residential building records for Harrison County indicated a shift in development to the northern, non-hazard areas of the county following Camille (Godschalk et al. 1989, p. 59). Prior to Camille, Biloxi acquired 45 parcels of beachfront property in an area designated at that time by the city for an urban renewal project. In September 1969, following destruction of this area by Camille, and motivated by the dire and immediate need to provide ample low-income housing, the property was discussed and a contractor hired to create a neighborhood redevelopment plan. On the same evening that the redevelopment study was granted, Biloxi approved a 198-unit, 13-story high rise apartment on the waterfront immediately adjacent to the urban renewal land (Leyden 1985).

Other proposals include allowing no further growth on the 50-year floodplain after 1980 (Petak and Atkisson 1982). Since 1980, the communities of Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian, and Biloxi have implemented floodplain ordinances that allow construction within the floodplain but require all projects to comply with the minimum elevation and flood proofing requirements of the Federal Insurance Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Association (Leyden 1985, p. 64). Limiting the growth on the floodplain is targeted at reducing the growth of property and people vulnerable to a storm surge.

Godschalk et al. (1989) suggests limiting the allowable density in high hazard areas, including the down-zoning of multi-family areas. After Camille, many residential areas were rezoned for commercial use. The two causes for this rezoning were: the opportunity to enlarge the municipalities' sorely depleted tax base, and the argument that land parcels under eight feet of water during Camille were not suitable for the higher-priced homes that the typical large lot size dictated (Leyden 1985, p. 62). Much of the beachfront property zoned after Camille to remain as open beach in “public use" has been manipulated to the degree where “public use" now includes marinas, amusement parks, zoos, circuses, carnivals, sports venues, and so forth.


IV. Lessons Learned

This review of Hurricane Camille supports the notion that we as a society have learned a great deal about how to respond to hurricanes. Pielke and Pielke (1997) provided a list of ten important lessons from hurricanes. These lessons are repeated here and discussed in the context of Camille.

1. Hurricanes, (generally called tropical cyclones) are the most costly natural disaster in the United States (and worldwide).

Hurricane Camille, at the time, was called the most costly natural disaster ever to occur. The same was said of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In aggregate, only large earthquakes have the damage potential that a storm like Camille presents to developed coastal locations. This is true not only in the U.S., but around the world as well.

2. Hurricane damages in the United States have risen dramatically during an extended period of hurricane quiescence.

After Camille, it was 20 years until another storm of Category 4 strength (much less Category 5) hit the US (Hugo). During this time, tremendous growth occurred along the nation's coasts. Pielke and Landsea (1998) estimate that Camille would cause more than $11 billion in damages were it to occur in 1998, which is dwarfed by the estimated $80 billion in damages that a recurrence of the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane would cause in 1998. A direct hit of a storm like Camille on Miami or New Orleans could exceed even this large amount.

3. A large loss of life is still possible in the United States.

Camille occurred when there were many fewer people in vulnerable coastal locations. Consider that only 150,000 people were ordered to evacuate during Camille's approach, this compares with more than 750,000 ordered to evacuate when Andrew approached south Florida in 1992. Inhabitants along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are fortunate in that hurricane watches and warnings are readily available, as are shelters and well-conceived evacuation routes. However, this should not give reason for complacency -- the hurricane problem cannot be said to be solved. Disaster planners have developed a number of scenarios that result in a large loss of life here in the United States. For instance, imagine a situation of gridlock as evacuees seek to flee the Florida Keys on the only available road. Or imagine New Orleans, with much of the city below sea level, suffering the brunt of a storm like Camille, resulting in tremendous flooding to that low-lying city. Scenarios such as these require constant attention to saving lives. Because the nature of the hurricane problem is constantly changing as society changes, the hurricane problem can never be said to be solved.

4. Tropical cyclone forecasts (seasonal and of intensity and landfall) can continue to improve; however, societal benefits associated with them depend upon using them effectively.

Forecasters have come a long way since Camille. Forecasters can show great improvements in forecasts over the past 30 years. But achieving benefits from improved forecasts will remain a challenging task. Consider that at the same time that hurricane forecasts have become more accurate, the actual length of coastline warned per storm by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) has increased from less than 300 nautical miles (nm) in the late 1960s to about 400 nm over the past ten years. According to the authors of a recent paper that documented the increase in miles-of-coast warned, Jerry Jarrell (current NHC Director) and Mark DeMaria, “the increase is somewhat surprising, because, since 1970 . . . official NHC track forecasts have been decreasing at about 1% per year. They speculate that the improvement in track forecasts has instead translated into longer lead time, which has increased from about 18 hours to 24 hours, from the time the first warning is issued to the time that the storm's center crosses the coast. But there are other possible explanations as well, including (a) the desire of emergency managers (and elected officials) to base evacuation decisions on the NHC warnings, and thus request warnings be extended to cover their communities; (b) a desire throughout the evacuation decision process to avoid the error of a strike on an unwarned population, (thus, the forecast improvement could have translated into lower risk); and (c) the fact that more and more people inhabit the coast, meaning that evacuation times are much larger, making necessary longer lead times and greater lengths of coastline warned. Unfortunately, in spite of the existence of these hypotheses, it has not been convincingly demonstrated why the coastline-warned-per-storm has increased during a period of decreasing forecast errors. Given the large costs involved with overwarning, both in unnecessary preparations and in potential public response, it would seem to be in the best interests of forecasters, policy officials, and the general public to obtain a greater understanding the use of hurricane forecasts.

5. The climate varies on all measurable time scales.

Hurricanes have occurred with different frequencies over time. A storm like Camille is indeed a rare event. But a storm like Camille can – and will – occur again. The only question is where and when. Therefore, as scientists work diligently to better understand the nature of hurricane climatology, it is important for decision makers to understand that their experiences might not be representative of the future climate. The next decades could be quiet, or they could be active. Are we prepared for hurricane variability?

6. Recent trends in hurricane frequencies and intensities are not evidence of global warming, and there is considerable reason to better prepare for hurricanes independent of concern about global warming.

The phrase "global warming" refers to the possibility that the earth's climate may change because human activities are altering the composition of the atmosphere. Scientists first raised this possibility more than a century ago, and in recent decades policymakers have begun to express concern about the possibility of climate change. Hurricane are often mentioned as a future consequence of climate change.

Does one need to rely on concerns about global warming to motivate improved hurricane preparedness? No. On the contrary, there are many reasons for the public and policy makers to have an increasing concern about the impacts of hurricanes; and this concern is independent of the global warming hypothesis.

Given the extensive social and demographic changes since the period of relatively high hurricane incidence earlier this century, it is not only important but imperative to ask whether our current hurricane preparation and response strategies would stand up should the high incidence of landfall along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts return. Before asking if we are prepared for the future, we ought to ask if we are prepared even for past known events and climate fluctuations. The future is uncertain, the recent past, however, is certain. The thirtieth anniversary of Camille's impact provides a convenient opportunity to ask such a question.

Once we consider ourselves "prepared for the past," - so to speak, - we can seek additional proactive improvements for the future. While analysis based on global warming remains inconclusive, history tells us with some degree of certainty that the incidence of hurricanes will eventually increase. What will we do if the next several decades were to witness the hurricane activity of the 1940s and 1950s?

7. Tropical cyclone landfalls highlight the existing level of societal preparedness.

Hurricane Camille, like every storm, provides a real-world test of the existing level of preparedness. Without exception, each storm reveals areas where society could have been better prepared or, less vulnerable. If we are to identify those actions needed to improve a community's preparation for hurricane impacts, then we must focus attention on ways to ascertain a community's exposure before a hurricane strikes. This means that we must support efforts to grapple with the messy and challenging task of assessment of hurricane preparedness. Instead of relying on a storm to show us how well we are doing, we could take on this challenge as a “cost of doing business" and perhaps over the long run reduce our vulnerability to hurricanes.

8. Short-term decisions are based upon decision processes developed over the long term.

When a hurricane makes landfall, it results in extreme disruption to affected communities. Lines of communication, power, transportation, and other infrastructure will likely be severed. People will face dislocation and, in worst case scenarios, injuries and possible death. In contrast to the normal pace of community decision making, the situation is complicated further by the relative speed with which a hurricane appears and makes landfall. Consequently, there is little time for careful consideration of alternative courses of action, and there might be tendencies for snap decisions without reasoned assessment of the possible consequences.

For all of these reasons, societal responses to hurricanes made in the face of an approaching storm and in its immediate aftermath are most effective when they are based upon decision processes developed over the long term.

With Camille, the preparations for the event and the response were based on processes put in place long before the storm made landfall. Coordination between government agencies as well as with state and local officials was enhanced because of preexisting plans. Experience with other storms, such as Andrew in 1992, shows that coordination is an ongoing challenge. Attention to the health of hurricane decision process can help to ensure that when an event does occur, preparations result in effective decisions.

9. Better knowledge of hurricanes, by itself, is generally not sufficient for behavior change.

Just because society has “learned a lesson" does not mean that the lesson will be implemented. Indeed, many of the lessons to be gleaned from the experience with Hurricane Camille were also learned in the aftermath of Andrew. Lessons gleaned from experience with past disasters are central to proactive action. Without fail, in the aftermath of every hurricane's impact, general lessons for coping with hurricanes are drawn, but typically are soon forgotten, only to have to be relearned by another community (and sometimes in the same community) in the aftermath of the next hurricane. The difficulty in learning lessons is vividly underscored, as in the aftermath of Camille when land developers and home owners rebuilt in vulnerable locations. One element in motivating proactive action with respect to hurricanes is a solid foundation of knowledge of the lessons of experience. Of course, also necessary is the dedication of people and communities who have the foresight and will to act before a storm strikes.

The final lesson is that "society knows, in large part, how to respond to hurricanes." One of the most frustrating aspects of society's response to hurricanes (and natural hazards more generally) is the realization that in many cases society currently knows enough to take effective actions to reduce its vulnerabilities. Hurricane Camille revealed many lessons that are as important today as they were 30 years ago. As the nation continues to increase its vulnerability to hurricanes it will be more and more important to take the knowledge that has been gained from research and experience and to turn it into practical action. As Camille showed, the stakes are high.




Report References

  • Black, R.H., 1970: Final Report - The Effects of Hurricane Camille on Industry, Public Utilities, and Public Works Operations. URS Research Company, San Mateo, California.

  • Criswell, M.E. and R.S. Cummins, 1970: Summary of Survey of Gulf Coast Structural Damage Resulting from Hurricane Camille. August 1969. U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, Mississippi.

  • DeAngelis, R.M., 1969: Enter Camille. Weatherwise, 22(5), 173-179.

  • Dikkers, R.D., R.D. Marshall, and H.C.S. Thom, 1971: Hurricane Camille-August 1969. NBS Technical Note 569, NBS Washington, DC.

  • ESSA (Environmental Science Services Administration), 1969a: Hurricane Camille-A Report to the Administrator. Washington, DC.

  • ESSA (Environmental Science Services Administration), 1969b: The Virginia Floods, August 19-22, 1969: A Report to the Administrator. U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC.

  • Godschalk, D.R., D.J. Brower, and T. Beatley, 1989: Mitigation after Camille, Frederic, and Alicia. In Catastrophic Coastal Storms, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

  • Hudson, J.W., 1970: Hurricane Camille Activities of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Mississippi. Proceedings - Mississippi Water Resources Conference, Water Resources Research Institute, Mississippi State University, State College, Mississippi.

  • Leyden, K., 1985: Recovery and Reconstruction after Hurricane Camille: Post Storm Hazard Mitigation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Hazard Mitigation Research Program, Report No. 85 -14, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

  • Metasystems, Inc, 1970: Mississippi Gulf Coast Comprehensive Development After Camille. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 329 pp.

  • OEP (Office of Emergency Preparedness), 1969: Hurricane Camille ..., 4 Months of Action. Executive Office of the President, Washington, DC.

  • Petak, W. J. and A. Atkisson, 1982: Natural Hazard Risk Assessment and Public Policy: Anticipating the Unexpected. Springer-Verlag, New York, 323 - 341.

  • Pielke Jr., R.A., and C.W. Landsea, 1998: Normalized hurricane damages in the United States: 1925-1995. Bulletin American Meteorological Society, 13, 621-631.

  • Pielke Jr., R.A., and R.A. Pielke Sr., 1997: Hurricanes: Their Nature and Impacts on Society. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.

  • Rohlfs, A. J. , 1969: Shipping and Hurricane Camille. Mariners Weather Log, 13(6), 245-251.

  • Thompson, H.J., 1969: The James River Flood of August 1969 in Virginia. Weatherwise, 22(5), 180-183.

  • USACE (United States Army Corps of Engineers), 1970: Hurricane Camille 14-22 August 1969. Mobile, Alabama, May 1970.

  • Wilkinson, K.P., and P.J. Ross, 1970: Citizen's Responses to Warnings of Hurricane Camille. Report 35, Social Science Research Center, Mississippi State University, State College, Mississippi.

  • Zornig, H.F, and G.E. Sherwood, 1969: Wood Structures Survive Hurricane Camille's Winds. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Research Paper, FPL 123,16 pp.



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