The 53rd Anniversary of Hurricane Camille…A Category 5 At Landfall and One of The Most Devastating Storms in US History

Paul Dorian

Hurricane Camille on August 16, 1969. Image captured by NASA’s ATS III satellite.

Overview

1969 was a remarkable year and will be long remembered as the year when man first walked on the moon, the Miracle Mets shocked the sports world, and the Woodstock Festival took place in upstate New York.  It will also be remembered as the year when a major hurricane –Hurricane Camille – struck the United States as a category 5 storm and the second most intense tropical cyclone on record (only the 1935 Labor Day hurricane had a lower central pressure at landfall).  Hurricane Camille made landfall in Mississippi and wreaked havoc from the Gulf States to as far inland as the Mid-Atlantic with widespread flooding, record rainfall, and it cost the lives of several hundreds of people along its path of destruction.

A chart by NOAA from 1969 with the path of Hurricane Camille; Credit NOAA

Development stage

The first satellite image was taken on April 1, 1960 (TIROS) and weather forecasters knew that one of the best uses of this newly introduced tool would be the ability to monitor tropical waves out over the open waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Indeed, with the usage of satellite imagery, forecasters first noted a tropical wave off of the African coast as early as August 5th, 1969 and this wave moved westward out over the open tropical Atlantic.  Satellite imagery then showed the system crossing over the Leeward Islands by the 10th of August still with no apparent circulation, but that began to change a few days later.  By the 14th of August, Air Force reconnaissance aircraft sent into the disturbance picked up a central pressure of 999 millibars along with 55 mph surface winds, and satellite imagery showed much more in the way of circulation with numerous bands of heavy rainfall.  It was at this point that the tropical system inherited its name of “Camille” having reached tropical storm status.

Camille did not remain a tropical storm for long as it had favorable conditions for intensification by the middle of the month of August in 1969.  The storm moved slowly northwestward and its central pressure continued to drop. By August 15th, Camille had reached hurricane status as it headed towards Cuba with winds gusting up to 115 mph. Camille passed over western Cuba as a category 1 hurricane and produced 92 mph winds and 10 inches of rain. 

By the 16th of August, Camille had passed Cuba and pushed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico which helped to continue its intensification.  Another Air Force reconnaissance aircraft was flown into the eye of Camille at this time and a central pressure of 908 millibars was recorded using dropwindsondes.  Hurricane Camille was now headed right towards the northern Gulf coastal region in a north-northwestward direction at 14 mph and it was being called a “small but dangerous” storm by the US Weather Bureau.  Hurricane watches on this day were put up stretching over 400 miles from Biloxi, Mississippi to St. Marks, Florida.

Hurricane watches were in effect on August 16th across a wide portion of the northern Gulf coast as Camille crossed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico; Source NOAA/NWS

Landfall

On August 17th, Hurricane Camille reached category 5 status and was located about 250 miles south of Mobile, Alabama.  Gulf states were now in crisis mode in preparation for landfall in what had become a monster hurricane.  The last Air Force reconnaissance aircraft readings were made on the afternoon of the 17th and a central pressure of 901 millibars was measured along with a maximum surface wind gust of over 200 mph. There was only one other time that a central pressure had been measured this low, in the 1935 Labor Day hurricane which ended up crossing over the Florida Keys between Miami and Key West.  As landfall approached in the northern Gulf coastal region, the easterly winds ahead of Camille generated a storm surge through the marshes of southeastern Louisiana. Meteorologists warned that “never before has a populated area been threatened by a storm as extremely dangerous as Camille”. A mass evacuation emptied the coastal towns all along the Gulf coast and those that stayed likely perished during the storm (there were rumors of “hurricane parties”, but there weren’t any survivors to recall them). 

The track of Hurricane Camille along with updated wind speeds; Courtesy NOAA, ESRI, Earthstar Geographics

Hurricane Camille made landfall on August 17th at about 10:30PM (CT) passing over Clermont Harbor, Waveland and Bay St. Louis in the state of Mississippi.  In 1969, it was only the second category 5 storm to make landfall in the US in the record-keeping era. Numerous weather stations that were supposed to record pressure and winds were destroyed during the storm and many of the records are only estimates and range up to 200 mph in wind gusts.  Maximum surface winds were calculated to be near 201.5 mph near the center of Camille on the afternoon of August 17th. The highest actual measurement on a wind instrument of 172 mph was found on an Esterline Angus wind speed recorder and was before the instrument gave out due to a paper jam.  Maximum sustained winds will never be known for certain. Catastrophic flooding took place from Louisiana to Florida with the tide reaching a maximum of 24.2 feet above mean sea level in some spots.

Photo of the flooding from the University of Colorado/CIRES 30th anniversary retrospective

Devastation far inland with catastrophic flooding in Virginia

Camille weakened to a tropical depression as it passed through northern Mississippi and into western Tennessee.  It then took a turn to the northeast through central Kentucky and then eastward through extreme southern West Virginia and southern Virginia.  By the 19th of August, atmospheric conditions were coming together for extreme rainfall and local geographic features were enhancing chances for catastrophic flooding in the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains – but few were prepared for what was about to take place.  Specifically, the remains of Camille were moving into an area where there was tropical air in place along with an existing backdoor cold front at the surface and an intensifying jet streak aloft. In this part of Virginia, there is a narrow valley with steep ridges and an upsloping wind amplified rainfall amounts. The combination of this extremely unstable atmosphere and local geographic features was resulting in historic and deadly flooding conditions. 

Rainfall amounts were disastrous across the northern Gulf coast and in the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains; Credit NOAA

Rainfall amounts of more than 26 inches occurred in the mountain slopes between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, Virginia in a 12 hour period.  Nelson County, Virginia recorded 27 inches of rain with reports that the rain was so heavy there were birds drowning in trees.  [A post-storm “reanalysis” by NOAA suggests over 30 inches of rain fell in as little as eight hours in some spots].  Survivors recall a night between the 19th and 20th of August that was filled with thunderstorm after thunderstorm and lightning so fierce “it was like daylight and the lightning didn’t flash, the sky just literally stayed lit”.  A total of nearly 3800 landslides were calculated within Nelson County, Virginia alone using LiDAR scans and 123 of the 153 fatalities in the state during this storm took place in this particular county. After Camille, the landscape had changed so much that topographical maps were obsolete.  To this day, hillsides still remain bare with exposed rock where mudslides ravaged and stripped the forest away.  The rainfall tripled the state of Virginia’s record and has not been broken since. (Credit to Jason Elliott (NWS, Sterling, VA) for much of the information on Camille and its impact on Nelson County, Virginia).

Hurricane Camille was the second most intense landfalling hurricane in the US in terms of central pressure; Credit NOAA

Final Notes

Hurricane Camille will always be remembered as one of the most devastating storms in US history and one of only four category 5 hurricanes to strike the US.  In addition to the Hurricane Camille and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, there have been two other category 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the US and both took place after 1969.  Hurricane Andrew struck the southeastern part of Florida in August of 1992 and Hurricane Michael made landfall in October of 2018 across the panhandle region of Florida. In the case of Michael, category 5 status did not come until months later when a “reanalysis” by NOAA increased its winds by 5 mph at landfall near Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida compared to the original operational estimate and this increase pushed the storm into category 5 territory.

Meteorologist Paul Dorian
Arcfield
arcfieldweather.com

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August 16, 2022 at 09:00PM

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