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‘Camille Was No Lady:’ 45 Years Ago, the Hurricane Changed Mississippi

Hurricane Camille wiped away landmarks, killed 141 people along the Coast and caused more than $1 billion in damage.

Hurricane Camille Memorial
The Hurricane Camille Memorial in Biloxi. Jennifer Smits/FEMA
Jennifer Smits/FEMA
(MCT) — Forty-five years ago, the history and landscape of South Mississippi changed forever when Hurricane Camille swept in and wiped away landmarks, killed 141 people along the Coast and caused more than $1 billion in damage.

"Camille was no lady," was her epitaph, and those who lived through the storm still vividly recall the winds estimated at more than 200 miles per hour and the surge that rose 24 feet in places.

Leading up to the evening of Aug. 17, 1969, each weather bulletin became more ominous. What started as "Small Hurricane Camille becomes very dense," at 5 p.m. Aug. 16 became "Hurricane Camille … a very intense and dangerous storm," two hours later. At 11 p.m. on Aug. 17 the advisory was, "Immediate evacuation of areas that will be affected by these high tides urgently advised."

Some people didn't pay attention.

"Frivolous hurricane parties went awry, causing at least 30 useless deaths," said a 25th anniversary account in the Sun Herald.

The most infamous of these parties was on the third floor of the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian. Residents had ridden out hurricanes before, including Hurricane Betsy four years earlier. A Hollywood movie depicted the fate of the revelers. All that remained of the apartments when Camille moved north was a debris-filled swimming pool.

The death toll was four in Jackson County, nine in Hancock County and 128 in Harrison County, with 89 of those in Pass Christian.

Those who survived woke up to a new South Mississippi.

Camille's 5-mile-wide eye came in over the Bay of St. Louis. The Moon-Lite Drive-In on the beach in Pass Christian was supposed to show "Gone with the Wind" that Sunday night. Instead, it was gone with the winds of Camille. Boats washed ashore in Gulfport. Antebellum homes were demolished. Damage was in the millions of dollars.

'I remember the winds'

"I remember the winds," Harrison County Emergency Management Director Rupert Lacy said.

Earlier that day, his family had gone to church in Mississippi City — "the last time we ever saw our church," he said. His father found plywood in Pascagoula to board up their home in what is now part of Gulfport. About 10 or 11 p.m. the boards were torn off the sliding glass door that faced east. His mother had an old piano she'd rescued from a bar in Bay St. Louis after Hurricane Betsy. "The piano was our wind block," he said.

Roland Weeks had been publisher at The Daily Herald, the predecessor of the Sun Herald, for a year when Camille struck. He rode out the storm at the newspaper plant in Gulfport with new editor Bob McHugh, Ted O'Boyle and Ron Elias, with whom he still has lunch every Aug. 17th to recall the storm. "We're meeting Sunday after church," Weeks said.

From the second floor, Weeks could see his car floating around in the parking lot. Still they worked. "We did not miss an edition," he said. The Daily Herald relayed stories to its parent company, the State-Record Publishing Co., in Columbia, S.C. The post-hurricane paper was printed there and flown back to South Mississippi to provide much-needed information for residents.

U.S. 90 pretty much gone

Bobby Eleuterius, former Hancock County supervisor and now D'Iberville city manager, said he walked from Oak Street in East Biloxi to the Edgewater Hotel, where his mother and brother had stayed during the storm, and found them safe. It took four hours, he recalled, because U.S. 90 was pretty much gone. He was called up for the National Guard and rescued people off their roofs in East Biloxi. The Seabees and Keesler airmen joined the recovery efforts, as they would again after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In some ways, Camille was night and day different than Katrina. Camille hit in the middle of the night. "That's why so many people died," Eleuterius said. Katrina's worst came at sunrise, when people could see the water rising. Camille's path was relatively narrow while Katrina's spread damage across South Mississippi. Camille was a Category 5 when it hit the Coast; Katrina was a 3.

©2014 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.