Hurricane Camille

Hurricane Camille Aug ‘69

August of ’69 means Woodstock to a lot of people but I wasn’t even aware of that iconic event at the time, I had other things on my mind.  The same weekend that Woodstock was becoming a legend on a farm in New York we were living a terror-filled weekend with the most powerful storm to ever hit the U.S. mainland.  There may have been other storms that have caused more death or destruction but there has never been a more powerful Category Five storm with sustained winds of over 200 MPH and spawning hundreds of tornados.  The reason Katrina caused so much more destruction is because of the failure of the levee system in New Orleans and the massive construction of casinos and development along the beach on the Gulf Coast in recent decades. 

In the summer of ’69, Patty, Traci and I were living in a mobile home in Back-bay Biloxi also known as D’Iberville.  We were set up on about an acre with live oak and pecan trees and I commuted into Keesler AFB where I was teaching electronics.   I had received my electronics training here six years before and I had
applied and been accepted to return as an instructor.  I had just cross-trained from teaching Ground Radio and was currently teaching Space Systems Command and Control.  I worked in something called a Transportable Terminal which was a mobile Command/Control center for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) which was actually a spy satellite system. 

We had been watching the development of Camille with our satellite dumps since its birth in the South Atlantic but couldn’t share information because of the Top Secret nature of the program.  However, one of my fellow instructors, Mike Shofner, was living in a Mobile home in Back-bay Biloxi right on the water and he went down and bought insurance on his home a few days before Camille hit.  He got totally wiped out and collected on the insurance and even got a refund on part of his deposit, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Anyway, that weekend it looked like Camille was heading for the panhandle of Florida and my sister Omie and her family were living on Eglin AFB, near Fort Walton Beach so we hopped in the car and drove there to help them get ready for the storm.

Then the storm started moving westward and it looked like it was heading for New Orleans so we jumped back in the car and headed back to Biloxi.  Then the storm started tracking eastward again and we just got through the Bankhead tunnel under the bay of Mobile before they closed it due to rising water.  We headed right for Keesler AFB where it appeared it would be safer to ride out the storm in the computer building which was next to the site where my Transterm station was located.  This was a huge concrete building two stories high and resembling a big Costco (although Costco wasn’t invented yet). The building had a crushed rock roof which, in 200 MPH winds, became lethal and rained destruction on all the cars parked nearby.  Luckily we were late getting there and our Chrysler 300 convertible escaped damage since it was so far away from the building.  We spent the night listening to the wind and watching things like the roof of the gas station on the corner flying by.    There were several hundred of us in the building and nobody got any sleep that night. 

The storm surge was about 20 foot high and left freighters and shrimp boats in downtown Gulfport and wiped out the businesses along Highway 90 from Biloxi to Gulfport and Bay St. Louis.  The eye went over us and we could hear it become quiet and then pick up again like a freight train roaring through.  The next morning,
as it became light, we could see that all the cars along one side of the building were heavily damaged and had no glass left in them because of the rocks from the roof.  We were hearing radio reports and stories of inflated death counts because of bodies that bobbed out of a cemetery near Bay St. Louis.   Also in that area, a family that had weathered many hurricanes and lived in a home they had built to withstand hurricanes invited friends and neighbors to a hurricane party to weather the storm.  One of the hundreds of tornados spawned by Camille made a direct hit on the house and it was completely destroyed.

They let us go about 10:AM but warned us that HWY 90 was out because the Ocean Springs bridge was gone.  The bridge was four lanes of concrete and had been built just a few years before.  We headed out Howard Street, the main street of Biloxi at that time, and saw the destruction that the hurricane had left.  About a block to the south where the antebellum homes and resorts used to be was a wall of debris 15 to 20 feet high, maybe higher.  I remember seeing an old woman sitting on a mattress on the sidewalk rocking back and forth and crying on Howard St.  There were a lot of people wandering around as if in a daze.  When Patty and I had been here six years previously when I was a student, we lived in an attic apartment of an antebellum home called Harvey House.  It was a beautiful home with a large front lawn and slave quarters out back.  It was less than a block from Beauvior, Jefferson Davis’s last home, which was heavily damaged but still standing after Camille.   I don’t know if Harvey House made it but I don’t think so.     

When we got to the back-bay bridge it was closed too so we  headed back east through town to Popp’s Ferry
Road about halfway to Gulfport and joined  several cars making their way to the back-bay area.  It was slow going as we had to clear trees from the road to get through.  
When we got home we found that several big pine trees had fallen on our house and we had no power or water.  We secured things as best we could and we all got back in the car and stopped by our other mobile home, which we had rented to another couple from Keesler.  They were in bad shape too so we took them with us and went back to spend a couple of days with Omie and Gene at Eglin.  We actually had a pretty good time with them at Fort Walton beach but we had to get back to the base since the Air Force wanted me to help with disaster relief and clean-up in Biloxi as soon as the roads were open from back bay (the Ocean Springs bridge wouldn’t be open for quite a while).

When I got back to our house, I had to get a bow-saw to cut the trees off from it and try to patch the holes in the roof enough to keep the rain out.  We had bottled water and would be without power for a while yet.  When I went into the base I found that the disaster teams were poorly organized and I spent a lot of time standing around not knowing how I could help.  Some teams were clearing roads to the beach and Highway 90 but that was really a job for a bulldozer.  They finally realized that there were a lot of people standing around with their thumb up their- well, you get the picture, and they let us go.  I went home to finish work on what was left of our home and to be with Patty and Traci. 

Camille made a believer out of a lot of Gulf Coast residents that had a cavalier attitude toward hurricanes.  It was a terrifying demonstration of mother nature’s most destructive and awesome power.  There were a lot of stories about hurricane parties that didn’t go well and I heard that a photographer had tied himself to the Ocean Springs bridge to experience the hurricane first-hand.  I sort of doubt that one but there were a lot of Darwin Awards given out during that storm. 

After the storm the Gulf Coast was swampedwith insurance adjusters writing checks for damages and not looking at much evidence.  Also, the government moved over a thousand manufactured homes into the area for emergency housing which bothered me since I had two of them that I wanted to sell and they were flooding the market.  Luckily, I had them set up on pretty good property and so I sold them and moved into base housing
on Thanksgiving Day that year. 

The construction company where Patty worked, Balboa Construction, reaped a bonanza after the storm, mainly through government contracts.  The storm was really very good for business and the Gulf Coast enjoyed a resurgence that would set it up for more destruction from subsequent storms.  I benefitted from it by buying a ’68 ford pick-up from a Mafioso nightclub owner on Pass Road between Gulfport and Biloxi who had an ‘in’ with the Harrison County Sheriff and was able to get a clear title from a vehicle that was supposedly lost in the storm.   As a side-note, the Sheriff of Harrison County Mississippi was one of the ten highest paid executives in the country and that was just on his declared income (not counting payoffs from bootleg distillers, etc.).  

I guess my two tours in Biloxi with the Air Force has influenced my feelings about the deep south but, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll believe anything about the political corruption, racism and shady dealings that are endemic to that part of the country.  Patty and I could tell you stories…

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2 Comments on “Hurricane Camille”

  1. […] Hurricane Camille […]

  2. jim Says:

    my father was stationed @ KAFB during camille, i was only about 4yrs old at the time,,,but the pictures he took were absolutely mind blowing. thnx for the great story.

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