45th Anniversary of Hurricane Camille


On the night of August 17-18th, 1969, Hurricane Camille came howling into Waveland, MS with estimated sustained winds of 175 mph (280 km/hr) and a storm surge of 24 feet (7.3 m) to become the second strongest hurricane on record to make landfall in the United States (after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935).  Camille also became an iconic storm that entered the public consciousness as the benchmark against which other disasters are compared.

  • The Storm    Camille can be traced as an easterly wave back to the west coast of Africa, but it gave no signs of development until it was west of Jamaica on Aug. 14th.  Having formed a circulation the depression moved northwestward toward the western tip of Cuba and intensified into a 110 mph (175 km/hr) hurricane as it passed over the island.  Entering the Gulf of Mexico, it began to further intensify but NHC had trouble gauging by how much.  Most of the Navy Hurricane Hunters had deployed to Puerto Rico for Project STORMFURY’s experiments seeding Hurricane Debbie.  The two aging Super Connies left on duty had mechanical problems and, in addition, couldn’t penetrate a hurricane over a certain strength since they entered the eye at sub-cloud level.  Thanks to the new infrared sensor on the Nimbus 3 satellite, meteorologists could monitor the storm at night, but NHC hurricane specialists and Washington, DC based satellite experts disagreed over the meaning of Camille’s contracting cloud shield viewed in IR the night of August 16-17th.  NHC thought it meant Camille was strengthening but the Satellite Service thought Camille was weakening.  Finally, NHC director Dr. Bob Simpson asked the Air Force to send a reconnaissance plane from California to the Gulf to penetrate the hurricane at high altitude.  They found the central pressure had dropped to an astounding 905 mb.  Simpson then knew he had to “ring the bell hard” in putting out warnings to the Gulf coast.  In addition, he released the output of an experimental surge model (SPLASH) which forecast a 20-foot storm surge.  Evacuations were ordered from Florida to Louisiana as the hurricane consistently tracked west of the forecast path.

   No anemometers survived in the area where Camille came ashore, but a barometer in Gulfport, MS measured a low pressure of 909 mb.  From that a maximum sustained wind speed of 190 mph (305 km/hr) was estimated.  The winds battered anything the 24-foot storm surge didn’t obliterate, and the Mississippi coast was devastated.  Camille degenerated as quickly as it had intensified as it moved inland, but it brought copious rains to the southeastern and mid-Atlantic United States as it tracked north then eastward, exiting to the ocean over Virginia.  In all Camille killed 259 people, the majority in Virginia due to flash flooding.  And the cost reached US$1.4 billion.

  • The Fallout    Immediately following Camille’s landfall, Simpson visited the Gulf coast surveying the damage.  At that time, Vice President Spiro Agnew was also touring the devastation and several Government officials, including Simpson, were asked to brief him on their actions during the storm.  After relating NHC’s efforts to warn people about the hurricane, Simpson mentioned the difficulties he’d had regarding reconnaissance due to the aging or inadequate Hurricane Hunter fleets.  A bureaucratic firestorm ensued with much finger pointing, and Simpson feared he might lose his job due to his being so outspoken.  He was not, and both the Departments of Defense and Commerce eventually allocated funding to upgrade their hurricane aircraft.  Simpson also struggled during Camille to adequately convey to emergency managers and first responders what sort of devastation they should prepare for.  So he turned to his friend Herb Saffir to adapt Herb’s wind storm scale to specific hurricane application.  The result was the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, adopted in 1971 and first used in public alerts in 1973.
  • The Reanalysis     As part of the HURDAT Reanalysis Project, Hurricane Camille was reconsidered in 2014.  Although most track changes were minor, Camille’s formation into a tropical depression was extended back 18 hours.  The major alterations were to the landfall values.  The 909 mb central pressure reading was found to have occurred not at the center of the hurricane eye, but peripheral to it.  So the value at landfall was lowered to 900 mb.  Using more modern pressure-wind relationships, the new central pressure yielded a new maximum sustained winds of 175 mph (280 km/hr).  This new value is more consistent with subsequent inland wind measurements and our present understanding of decay rates for hurricanes moving inland.  The researchers also think that Camille might have undergone an eyewall replacement cycle before coming ashore, a phenomenon not known at that time.
  • The Name     In the 1960s, Atlantic hurricane names consisted only of women’s names and the lists were rotated every four years.  In addition, names were only retired for ten years.  So when ‘Carla’ was retired in 1961 it was replaced on the 1965 list with ‘Carol’.  ‘Carol’ had been retired in 1954 when that storm devastated New England but was now eligible for reinstatement.  It was also brought back for the 1969 list, but scientists from the National Hurricane Research Laboratory (NHRL) asked the naming committee in January of that year to permanently retire Carol, Edna, and Hazel since papers were still being written about them. The committee agreed but needed a replacement ‘C’ name.  NHRL’s Dr. Banner Miller suggested the name of hurricane specialist John Hope’s daughter Camille.  Camille Hope was involved in an advanced science and math program in high school and the previous year had carried out a required independent research project.  Her father had asked Miller to mentor her in her investigation of hurricanes and long-term atmospheric trends.  Miller was impressed by her thoughtful work and so suggested her name for the list.  “We kept it quiet for many years,” Camille said in a recent phone interview.  “The names on the list weren’t supposed to be for a particular person.”  Stu Ostro, a Weather Channel colleague of John Hope’s, let the cat out of the bag five years ago.  ‘Camille’ was scheduled to be replaced by ‘Cindy’, but a new 10-year rotating scheme was adopted in 1971.
  • The Papers    Some scientific articles written by HRD personnel using data from Camille
    • Black, P. G. and R. A. Anthes, 1971:  On the asymmetric structure of the tropical cyclone outflow layer.  J. Atmos. Sci., 28, 1348-1366.
    • Powell, M. D., and T. A. Reinhold, 2007:  Tropical Cyclone Destructive Potential by Integrated Kinetic Energy.  Bull. Amer. Met. Soc., 88, 513-526.