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Hurricane Camille: The Compact Killer
Owing in large part to its location in the steering path of the prevailing Azores High and the warm temperatures of its waters, the Gulf Coast of the United States is prone to frequent damaging tropical cyclones. On average, 3-4 named storms strike the coast each year, causing a perennial cycle of cleanup along the shoreline and, to a lesser extent, the inland areas. The frequency of these storms can bring with it a certain sense of routine, as if they were just something that had to be dealt with if you chose to live in the southeastern United States. However, there is one storm that no resident alive at the time it hit will ever dismiss from their memories as the usual fare.
Hurricane Camille made landfall at Pass Christian, Mississippi, in the nighttime hours of August 17, 1969. By the time the sun rose, the entire town had been wiped out. Devastation stretched all along the coast of Mississippi, and entire fishing fleets were found miles inland due to an amazing 24-foot storm surge. In terms of wind speed, Camille was the strongest hurricane to ever strike the mainland United States, and is tied for first place along with the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that struck the Florida Keys. Its 190 MPH sustained winds at landfall makes it one of the four strongest storms in the recorded history of the world.
A Freak of Nature
Unlike many of the strongest recorded tropical cyclones in history, Hurricane Camille was not a classic Cape Verde-type hurricane. She began her life as a routine tropical wave coming off of the steppes of Africa and moving westward along with the prevailing winds until reaching the Lesser Antilles islands on August 9. By that time, the wave's thunderstorm activity had begun to cluster into a circular pattern, which was nothing out of the ordinary. Many of the weaker, more routine Atlantic Ocean tropical storms develop in this fashion. On August 14, the wave developed a central axis of rotation south of Cuba, and was classified as a tropical storm.
Despite being in an area of incredibly warm waters and very light wind shear to dissipate its activity, Tropical Storm Camille intensified very slowly, and it appeared as if it wasn't going to be a major storm. Just before passing over the western tip of Cuba, it began a process of deepening and strengthened into a minor hurricane. Camille brought heavy rain and gale force winds to Cuba, but seemed minor in comparison to the very costly Hurricane Gladys that had crossed the island in virtually the same place the previous year.
However, something very strange happened as it emerged from Cuba and began to move into the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Camille began an intensification process that defied all hurricane models and simulations that had been developed before or since the storm. The already compact storm's eye contracted to a diameter of less than 8 miles, churning up an incredible amount of moisture and energy from the warm waters of the Gulf. In less than a day, its top sustained winds increased from 105 to 150 MPH. However, based on its position in the Gulf and the slightly cooler waters into which it was moving, forecasters expected to weaken before it hit land.
Camille's period of intensification only grew more phenomenal as it bore down on the coastline. Late in the day on August 17, with Camille less than 100 miles from land, a Hurricane Hunter reconnaissance flight recorded a barometric pressure of 905 mbar and sustained surface winds of 190 MPH. This made Camille, at the time, the strongest and most intense hurricane ever measured by official reconnaissance. Its lack of weakening with the cooler water and the greater wind shear defied all behaviors previously observed in tropical cyclones; it is speculated that its small size and compact eye allowed it to retain its energy and rapidly replace any moisture lost to the prevailing winds as it moved across the Gulf.
Hurricane Camille made landfall along the coastline of Bay St. Louis in Mississippi, near the coastal town of Pass Christian. The storm retained its record-setting winds right up until it hit the coast, inundating the town with a 24 foot-high wall of water that tore buildings right off of their foundations. Boats as large as tanker barges were washed miles inland, one ending up in the middle of US Highway 90. The combination of wind and water completely overwhelmed all measures put into place to stop them, and destroyed nearly every structure in the town.
Unfortunately, the devastation was not isolated to Pass Christian. Along the entire coast of Mississippi, especially on the eastern side of the eye, nearly every standing structure was completely wiped out along the coast and for 3 to 4 blocks inland. Multiple sections of US Highway 90, which ran largely parallel to the coast, were split apart by the driving water, forcing it to be rebuilt. Some 3,800 homes and businesses along the highway were completely destroyed, and many more damaged.
Perhaps an even more notable effect of the storm, however, was its complete reshaping of the coastal areas of the Gulf. As the storm passed over Ship Island, 12 miles off of the coast of Mississippi, its powerful wind and churning water actually carved a trench right through the middle of the island, splitting it in two after the water levels receded to normal. Similarly, some 70% of Dauphin Island was completely inundated by the storm surge, carving out an enormous section of the Western part of the island which still remains under water today.
Mercifully, Hurricane Camille had a high amount of forward velocity, and moved extremely quickly along its entire track after making landfall. Because of this, rainfall totals were not nearly as high as they might have been under other circumstances. The worst flooding was in Virginia, where the storm's remnants dropped 1 to 2 feet of rain in many locales. The torrential downpours caused many rivers in the state to flood, and reports were received of birds drowning in trees and people caught outside in the deluge having to cup their hands around their mouth and nose in order to breathe through the rain.
All told, Camille caused $1.42 billion (1969 USD, $8.51 billion 2011 USD) in damages, and took 259 lives.
Comparisons with Katrina
When most people think about Gulf Coast hurricanes these days, Hurricane Katrina springs immediately to mind. Like Camille, Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane that underwent rapid intensification in the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina made landfall just 20 miles west of Pass Christian, and brought massive devastation to areas all along the Gulf Coast. However, some key differences between the two storms are important to remember. Hurricane Katrina underwent a period of rapid weakening before making landfall, due to cooler waters and wind shear. Essentially, it did what Camille was forecasted to do, but didn't.
Katrina's strength and devastating force was in its size; it was over twice as large as Camille, with a wall of hurricane-force winds that extended outward over 50% further. The result of this size differential was that, while Camille's wind speed was much greater than Katrina's, Katrina's storm surge was a full 5 feet higher than that of Camille, and spread out across a much longer section of the Coast. The best illustrative example of what that meant on the ground is to consider that Camille did very little damage to the city of New Orleans, despite having much higher wind speeds than Katrina and striking the coastline in almost exactly the same place.
Despite the two monster storms' damage differentials, both Camille and Katrina have been retired as hurricane names, and will never be used as a designation for an Atlantic Ocean hurricane again.