The statistics of Hurricane Camille are mind numbing. Winds exceeding 200 miles per hour. Waves reaching nearly 35 feet. Property damage of more than $1.5 billion ($11 billion in today’s dollars). And 172 Mississippians dead or missing.
While these figures hint at what Camille was like when it hit the Mississippi coastline August 17, 1969, the complete story can only be told by those who were there — and survived — the hurricane by which all others that have come since then are judged. And it is these survivors’ accounts that make up the new book from Philip D. Hearn titled “Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast” (University Press of Mississippi).
Hearn writes, “This book focuses on some of the survivors of Hurricane Camille — what they were doing in the days and hours of that fateful August weekend before all hell broke loose, their harrowing ordeals during the storm and their plight and actions in the aftermath.”
Hearn, who is the current research writer for Mississippi State University’s university relations office, was once the news director for the public relations office at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM). It was there that Hearn became engrossed by a series of interviews conducted with Camille survivors by R. Wayne Pyle, the former assistant director of USM’s Mississippi Oral History Program (now known as the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage). The collection consists of 33 bound oral histories and one written memoir housed at USM’s McCain Library and Archives. Of those 33 accounts, Hearn chose 15 on which to focus, accounts that “put the terror of the hurricane into proper perspective, from the ringside seat of those who lived through the terror.”
Hearn’s journalism background serves him well in his 233-page “Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast.” He does an excellent job of stringing together the accounts into a vivid, full story, and he also compiled copious amounts of background data to embellish the accounts.
Hearn functions more as a news reporter. He lets the survivors’ stories pull the book along, and what the reader is left with is a tale as riveting and terrifying as any work of sci-fi — minus the fiction.
In the first chapter — “You Could See the Black Coming In” — one can almost hear ominous music begin to play as the “evil” approaches while the unwitting future victims are largely oblivious to the eminent danger. The reader wants to yell, “Get out of there!” A few of the “extras” do. But the main characters are surprised by the stalking beast and only think of running when escape is impossible. The fact that the reader already knows how the story ends only makes the pulse beat that much quicker.
Hearn’s writing is clean and concise, but the book quickly becomes difficult to read — not physically but emotionally. The personal experiences are gut-wrenching, none more so than that of Paul Williams, whose family attempted to ride out the storm in an auditorium adjacent to Pass Christian’s historic Trinity Episcopal Church. He, an in-law and Williams’ son, Malcolm, survived.
“But nearly all of Williams’ family — his wife, 11 children and one grandchild — had perished,” Hearn wrote. “Malcolm didn’t want his dad to see his mother’s body. ‘Daddy, Mama got her neck broken,’ he said. Williams complied, at first. Then, later in the morning, he helped workers from the Riemann Funeral Home recover the bodies, one by one, and place them on a walkway… Nearby, Gerald Peralta watched the scene with a heavy heart. “The thing that hurt me the most,’ he would recall, ‘was watching that man carrying out the bodies of his family and laying them right there on the sidewalk.’ Williams just stared as the undertakers put the bodies on ice. ‘We’ve got to go on living,’ he mumbled to himself. ‘You can’t run away from it.’”
While Hearn’s book largely deals with loss, he also does a great job of painting the post-Camille picture and the recovery of the survivors. Their grief is well documented and described, but the reader gains some comfort in the fact that they not only survived but lived on, changed forever, but resolute. Their resiliency is uplifting.
Still, Hearn refuses to let readers off the hook. In the last chapter — “The Next Camille” — he points out that it is not a matter of if but when the next killer hurricane will hit the Coast. And now that the area has experienced exponential growth in both people and property due to gaming and other factors, the carnage will be that much worse. The reader can almost hear that music again.
Hearn does an outstanding job of investigative reporting and then dovetailing the accounts into a broad view of what the storm was like for residents all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But perhaps the most redeeming quality of the book is the effort Hearn expends in treating the survivors and their stories with dignity and respect. It all adds up to making “Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast” a must-read.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.