'Everything was gone.' Hurricane Camille, Mississippi's first monster storm, turns 50
When you mention hurricanes, the first thing that comes to many Mississippians' minds is Hurricane Katrina which struck in 2005, but on August 17, 1969, Hurricane Camille made landfall and for the next 36 years it was Mississippi's storm of all storms.
"Our house was a block and a half off the beach," said Bill Hancock of D'Iberville. "We moved there in '65 or '66 or so.
"We had a school between us and the beach. It was sort of a protective barrier."
Hancock was living in Gulfport at the time and was 14 years old. He lived at 912 36th Avenue with his father, mother and younger brother. They knew a storm was coming but didn't realize its strength.
"We decided to stay," Hancock said. "We didn't have cable tv.
"There wasn't any Weather Channel. We had no clue. Nobody really knew."
By 9:30 that night, Hancock said they began to realize what was coming.
"For a couple or three hours it was blowing," Hancock said. "You couldn't hear anything but the wind it was so loud. It sounded like a jet engine."
Then the water came — first up the street, then up the front steps, then into the house.
"My mother and my little brother were sitting on the kitchen table and my dad had a hammer and was going to bust a hole in the ceiling to get in the attic," Hancock said.
But as fast as the water came in, it went back out and by 1:30 a.m. winds had calmed to more of a tropical storm speed. The next morning, reality set in. Homes had blocked the view of the water the day before, now Hancock could see the water from his home.
"It was strange," Hancock said. "I remember it was nothing but slabs and steps and a toilet.
"Everybody who lived on that first block, everything was gone. It changed the face of the coast."
According to the National Weather Service, the storm surge reached 24.6 feet near Pass Christian. The actual maximum winds are unknown because all wind-recording instruments were destroyed in the Waveland area where it made landfall, but a reanalysis of data showed winds of 175 miles per hour. Ranked by pressure, it remains the second most intense hurricane to ever strike the continental US. The only hurricane that was more intense was the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane which hit the Florida Keys.
Camille was so intense, Libby Hartfield of Bolton thought there was a good chance she and her sister would not survive.
'I really did think I was going to die.'
"I'd just graduated from high school," Hartfield said. "I was 18 and my sister was a school teacher on the coast."
Hartfield was visiting her sister and the two knew they needed to leave because her sister lived in a small trailer. However, because so many people were evacuating, US 49 was at a standstill. After hours of little progress, they decided to weather the storm at a friend's apartment on Pass Road in Gulfport.
"Once the wind started blowing and it started raining we knew it was bad," Hartfield said. "The building started shaking and water started pouring down the walls."
With windows covered by boards, they couldn't see what was happening, but they could hear crashes and a long continuous roar.
"I remember us discussing we weren't going to make it," Hartfield said. "I really did think I was going to die."
Using a flashlight, Hartfield said she read a book in an effort to mentally escape the storm and at some point fell asleep. After she woke that morning, she and her sister decided to check on friends who lived closer to the beach.
"As you walked it got worse," Hartfield said. "People were crying and looking for stuff.
"There were police and ambulances on 49. People were yelling people's names. People were just looking for people. It was a lot of chaos."
Camille was a Category 5 storm and at that time it was the only Category 5 to make landfall in the US. According to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the effects were felt from Cuba to Virginia and caused an estimated $1.421 billion in damage in 1969 dollars. But the damage went far beyond what could be measured in dollars and cents.
'We started seeing bodies all over.'
Jerry Pender of Pocahontas, Arkansas was living in Jackson in 1969 and was a member of the Mississippi National Guard.
"I was in a unit called Emergency Operations Headquarters," Pender said. "Our mission was to organize and control all units called out for emergencies.
"We had trained for hurricane situations, but we were overwhelmed by Camille. It was so much worse than we expected."
Pender arrived on the coast Sunday afternoon and his unit and others took shelter in a hangar on an Air National Guard training center in Gulfport. While the structure was designed to withstand hurricanes, Camille blew out the windows in the roof.
"It got so bad we ended up sitting on the floor facing the wall four deep," Pender said. "It was really harrowing that night.
As bad as the night was, what he saw the next day was worse. Pender and others in his unit drove to what remained of US 90 and traveled west toward Bay St. Louis where he saw the worst of what Camille left behind.
"We started seeing bodies all over," Pender said. "We started doing what we could to recover those bodies.
"We got refrigerated trailers from a meatpacking company down there. We got several of them and set up a morgue. A lot of the bodies were just around (US) 90. Probably a couple of weeks we were picking up bodies. I don't know how many we picked up."
A total of over 250 deaths are attributed to Camille. In Mississippi 172 died and some of those people were never found.
Pender said after he was asked to be interviewed for this story, the memories from 50 years ago came flooding back. He talked about the coast-wide destruction he saw, the massive military relief effort and the many photographs he took of Camille's wake.
He's long-since lost track of the photos, but the images of Camille are still burned in his mind.
"I never imagined anything could be worse than that," Pender said. "That was a very unbelievable situation at that time. I can still close my eyes and visualize all those bodies along Highway 90 and those boats washed up."
Mississippian Brian Broom is an avid outdoorsman who has worked for the Clarion Ledger for nearly 30 years. To read more of his stories, please subscribe today. Contact Brian Broom at 601-961-7225 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Clarion LedgerOutdoors on Facebook and @BrianBroom on Twitter.