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*Please note that I only use peer-reviewed sources to draw my conclusions on Hurricane Camille’s intensity at landfall.
□ The internet has prompted the rapid dissemination of information about the infamous Hurricane Camille. With 190 mph sustained winds at landfall and a storm surge over 22ft, Camille appears to be an unprecedented event. Myths and legends related to the storm, such as the infamous (and fictional) “hurricane party” at the Richeliue Apartments, have entered mainstream media and rewritten the history surrounding the hurricane.
Hurricane Camille was last intercepted by Hurricane Hunters more than 150 miles south of its final landfall point near Pass Christian, approximately 24 hours prior to crossing the coastline (NWS, 1969). While rarely mentioned, this final offshore flight suffered mechanical problems and failed to intercept the storm’s eyewall, so the data regarding pressure and windspeed was estimated in order to fill the chronological gap. No reconnaissance flights were flown into the hurricane thereafter, so the 190mph wind figure has no basis in direct observation. Reanalysis has concluded, however, that Hurricane Camille was not a category 5 at landfall.
A wind contour map published by NOAA reveals peak winds in Hurricane Camille were likely around 129 knots (148mph) eight miles east of the center. This release alone should have immediately led to Camille being downgraded to a category 4 storm, but no such action has yet been taken. The official NHC report on the hurricane actually says that “highest wind near the center were estimated at 160mph, with gusts to 190mph” at the time of landfall (NWS, 1969). In reality, the Mississippi coastline likely experienced sustained winds under 150mph.
It appears that Hurricane Camille’s legendary status has protected it from being downgraded. There is no debate over the fact that the hurricane was a category 5 offshore. As it approached the coast, however, the hurricane’s winds weakened significantly. Surface reports are congruent with winds at landfall being somewhere in the category 4 or category 3 range. A Transworld Drilling Company rig, raised approximately 100ft above the ocean, recorded a wind gust of 172mph near the most intense quadrant of the storm before the anemometer’s paper tray jammed (the cessation of the trace was not due to the anemometer failing in high winds). A National Bureau of Standards survey adjusted the gust to 144mph at 30ft elevation and found the highest adjusted sustained windspeed measured was 115mph (NBS, 1971). While the rig’s reading is impressive, the measurement was taken more than 70 miles off the Mississippi coastline. On land, the highest officially recorded gust was 129mph at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi (NWS, 1969).
Further evidence of Camille’s lower-than-reported winds at landfall are photographs of the damage in areas that should have experienced the storm’s maximum winds. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 caused much more intense wind damage than Hurricane Camille. Both hurricanes struck at similar latitudes and both hurricanes encountered similar vegetation, so the comparison is very valid. In Hurricane Andrew, pine forests were stripped of all their branches and leveled. Photographs from Pass Christian after Hurricane Camille show rather unimpressive damage to the coastal pine trees.
Hurricane Katrina behaved much like Hurricane Camille did 36 years later. Like Camille, the storm reached category 5 strength in the Gulf of Mexico and, like Camille, it weakened before making landfall yet still brought with it a tremendous storm surge. Katrina was significantly larger than Hurricane Camille, however, and the resulting storm surge was higher and much more encompassing. Long time residents interviewed along the Mississippi and Alabama coastline universally considered Hurricane Katrina the worse of the two storms.
Data collected from researchers indicates that Hurricane Camille impacted the Mississippi coastline with surface winds between 120mph and 145mph. Radar images of the storm verify the development of two concentric eyewalls in the hours prior to landfall, a structural change which dramatically reduced the storm’s winds while only moderately increasing the central pressure. The extreme intensity of the storm in the hours prior to landfall, coupled with the heightened vulnerability of the Mississippi coastline, led to tremendous storm surge heights in excess of 20ft in a small area centered on the town of Pass Christian.
Unbiased damage and assessment surveys failed to find structural damage indicative of winds in excess of 160mph. The NHC preliminary report on Hurricane Camille contained various inaccuracies and is not an objective source of information pertaining to the storm. Satellite imagery suggests the storm may have reached maximum intensity on August 16th while located approximately 400 miles south of Mississippi. While it is unknown why the official report deviated so radically from the realities of the storm, analysis from the 1960′s both in the Atlantic and Pacific tended to overestimate hurricane intensity. The storm is an excellent example of how easily misinformation can cloud “official” analysis of hurricanes or tornadoes.
*Perhaps the best resource for full-color images of Hurricane Camille’s damage can be found on the Mississippi Department of Archives and History account here.