Gulf Coast Can’t Forget Hurricane Camille of 40 Years Ago

August 19, 2009

Scouring an aerial photograph taken three days after Hurricane Camille crashed ashore on Mississippi’s Gulf coast, Richard Rose points to the spot where his father’s body washed into the chimney of a ruined home.

Rose was only 10 when one of the most powerful hurricanes to batter the U.S. mainland in the 20th century struck on Aug. 17, 1969. But he vividly remembers his older sister wailing, “Daddy’s dead” once word reached family members who had sought safety at a relative’s home some 100 miles inland.

“I just burst into tears,” said Rose, whose father was swept away while trying to wade through Camille’s surging waters.

Fred Rose is one of 172 names etched on granite slabs that ring a memorial to Camille’s Mississippi victims, including the missing who may not have counted toward the storm’s official death toll.

On Monday, Richard Rose plans to visit the beachfront memorial in Biloxi for a ceremony marking Camille’s 40th anniversary. A commemoration also is planned Monday at a cemetery in Gulfport where three unidentified Camille victims are buried under the names “Faith,” “Hope” and “Charity.”

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 eclipsed Camille as the most destructive hurricane ever to strike Mississippi’s Gulf coast, but survivors of the earlier storm will never forget its fury.

Camille was a Category 5 hurricane with howling winds of 190 mph when it crashed ashore near Bay St. Louis, Miss., just before midnight that Aug. 17. The storm had strengthened after brushing the western tip of Cuba, and also swiped the boot of southeast Louisiana as it roared ashore, its storm surge peaking at about 24 feet.

The storm claimed 256 lives, including more than 100 in Virginia, where its remnants triggered widespread flooding and landslides. Camille joined the Woodstock music festival and the Apollo moon landing to put the summer of 1969 into the history books.

Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, was a meteorology student at Texas A&M University when Camille struck. Months later, he drove over from Texas to see the damage for himself.

Katrina and Camille were “very similar stories,” he said.

“They were history-changing events for the people who lived along the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” said Read, who is to deliver a speech Monday in Biloxi on Camille’s impact and advancements in hurricane forecasting since 1969.

In 1969, Read said, hurricane forecasters had to rely on a satellite making one or two passes a day over a storm.

“You weren’t getting constant pictures like you are now,” he added.

Camille’s intensity surprised George Mixon, who was a 21-year-old rookie sheriff’s deputy when Camille’s rising water chased him, his father and brother onto the roof of their home in Mississippi’s Harrison County.

Terrified, the family rode out the storm on that rooftop for what seemed like eight or nine hours, but Mixon wasn’t counting.

“I was too busy praying,” he said. “All you could hear was the constant roar … We were getting hit with debris and pine limbs. We kept our faces down and held onto the house and one another.”

At dawn, Mixon joined other deputies in collecting the bodies.

Generations of coastal Mississippi residents assumed no storm could top Camille. Then along came Katrina, blamed for more than 1,600 deaths and tens of billions of dollars in damages.

“I would have to say that Katrina was worse than Camille, and that’s a hard thing to say,” said Mixon, now a county fire marshal who rode out Katrina in an emergency operations center.

Charles Sullivan, the archivist at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, is the author of “Hurricanes of the Mississippi Gulf Coast: Three Centuries of Destruction,” a book first published in 1986. He included Katrina in a revised version this year.

“Katrina was so horrible that I didn’t see the 40th anniversary of Camille coming,” he said. “I didn’t think anything could make me forget about Camille.”

For Sullivan, the lessons of both storms are the same: “Don’t build anything near the beach,” he said. “If you build it there, it is going to be taken by the sea.”

But some like Rose, a Gulfport resident, have never considered leaving.

“This is where we live. This is where we belong, no matter what dangers are present,” Rose said.

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