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Remembering Hurricane Camille 50 years later

Hurricanes Camille and Katrina were as different as night and day, yet those who lived through both storms say the two were similar in many ways.

Saturday, Aug. 17 (was) the 50th anniversary of Camille and Aug. 29 will be 14 years since Katrina.

“Camille was a Sunday Storm,” said Rupert Lacy, now emergency management director for Harrison County. He was going on 11 and recalls going to church with his family in Gulfport the day before Camille. They made a stop at Shipley Donuts, as was their Sunday routine, before his father and brother went looking for plywood to board up their home in Orange Grove. They found supplies miles away in Pascagoula. By morning their church was gone, he said, and the Coast was in ruins.

Katrina came ashore on a Monday morning, so those who remained saw the incredible storm surge and waves on top of that rush toward their homes and chase some of them into their attics to survive the flood.

Charles Sullivan, archivist at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, already had amassed more than 20,000 pictures of Camille and other hurricanes on the Coast. He and his wife rode out Katrina in the archives at Perkinston. “If the archives are going down I’m going down with them,” he said. The couple and the archives were safe, he said, thanks in part to new windows being installed in the office 2 weeks earlier.

Both Camille and Katrina hit in August. The storms took different paths but landed in the same section of Coastal Mississippi. They were so destructive the names were retired and never again will be used for a hurricane.

Camille was a Category 5 when she came ashore in South Mississippi. One of only a handful of Category 5 storms to ever hit the United States, Camille’s winds broke the meters. Sustained winds were estimated at close to 200 mph with gusts much higher.

Nell Frisbie said she kept hearing the roar of trains the night of Camille. “Why are the freight trains running in this storm?” she asked her husband, Bill, as they took shelter in his office on Main Street in Bay St. Louis. He didn’t tell her the sound was tornadoes destroying their home near the beach and their town, she said. The next morning was sunny when they stepped outside and stared along the street that had been lined with businesses. “There were no buildings there,” she said. “Nobody ever thought it was going to be like that.”

Katrina strengthened to a Category 5 as it nearly filled the Gulf of Mexico and was a Category 3 when it came ashore in Mississippi.

So how was a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale — devised after Hurricane Camille to show the intensity of a storm — so much more powerful than a Category 5?

“It’s because Katrina was huge,” Sullivan said. “It threw so much more water so much higher,” he said, killing more people and damaging much more property.

Camille was believed to be as bad as a hurricane ever would get on the Coast. Camille was power-packed, he said, but was a “third-grade fist fight compared to Katrina.”

The eye of Camille was 11 miles in diameter compared to 37 miles in Katrina.

Camille’s winds extended 60 miles to the east from the center and Katrina’s were 120 miles.

The storm surge was 24.6 feet near Pass Christian in Camille and 27.8 feet during Katrina.

“The bad thing was we gauged everything by Camille,” said Bobby Eleuterius, longtime Harrison County supervisor.

The Biloxi Bay Bridge was badly damaged during Camille, but it and the Bay of St. Louis bridge were demolished and stacked like dominoes after Katrina. Homes and businesses that had survived Camille were gone without a trace after Katrina.

Sullivan published his book “Hurricanes of the Mississippi Gulf Coast: Three Centuries of Destruction” in 1986 and republished it in 2009 with the details of Katrina’s wrath. Camille left 68 square miles of destruction and destroyed 5,662 houses, he said. Katrina’s disaster area was 28,000 square miles across 4 states, with 68,000 houses destroyed and thousands more damaged.

Herbert Saffir, co-founder of the Saffir-Simpson scale, was in his 90s when he visited South Mississippi three months after Katrina. “He said that when Katrina was a Category 5 over the open Gulf of Mexico, it pushed forth a Category 5 surge wave,” Sullivan said. “Then when the storm degraded first to a Category 4 and then to a Category 3, those winds were sufficient to keep the Category 5 surge moving.”

The damage from Camille was $1.4 billion in 1969 dollars. Katrina’s damage was $125 billion in 2005.

He was 15 when Camille hit, recalls Bobby Carter of Ocean Springs, now director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic. He and friends Steve Williams and Bobby Penton were out on the water at the foot of Martin Avenue in Ocean Springs, on surfboards in the “dead calm” before the storm. “Looking back toward Horn Island it was just dark,” he said. “It was coming. We were going to ride the waves.”

Glenn Young, longtime civil defense director for Ocean Springs, drove by and called out to them on a megaphone — “Boys, don’t your realize there’s a hurricane coming?” They immediately got out of the water, Carter said, and by the time they got home it was raining. When he went down to the beach the next day and saw all the damage, “I wanted to call Glenn Young and thank him,” Carter said. “I thought I was pretty smart at 15,” he said. “Now, looking back, I wasn’t too bright.”

He said they didn’t know the storm would be that strong, that there weren’t the news bulletins there are today or ominous warnings from the National Hurricane Center that made it to them. When Katrina neared the Coast 36 years later, Carter said he listened to the forecasts and took his family to Destin, Florida. “I was not even thinking about going surfing,” he said. It took 1 1/2 years to get back into his damaged home.

There were no text messages, social media or Jim Cantore on The Weather Channel to warm people of how dire Camille might be, Lacy said. “We had Nash Roberts and we had Wade Guice,” he said. Roberts was a weatherman at WWL-TV in New Orleans, and Lacy said, “He was the go-to guy.” Just to watch his forecast, Lacy said his family had to make sure the television antenna on the house was turned the right direction to pick up the signal.

Coast Civil Defense directors Wade and Julia Guice were credited with saving many lives by going door-to-door and telling people to evacuate during Camille.

Following Camille, Lacy and Eleuterius were called up to serve with the National Guard. “Mainly our duty back then was to get people off rooftops,” Eleuterius said and he recalls the rescue of a family stuck on the Biloxi Bay Bridge. The water was rising and the winds were roaring, he said, and their vehicle couldn’t go forward or back. The Guard used a duck that could travel on land or water. “That’s how we got them off,” he said, far different from the helicopters used to rescue people after Katrina.

“I was planning a dinner party the night of Camille,” said Frisbie, who lived with her family on South Beach in Bay St. Louis. Instead, her mother-in-law packed the car with her photos and silverware while Frisbie wrapped her silver in pillowcases and stashed it in a laundry basket. Before they left their home, “I stuffed it in the chimney so the looters couldn’t get it,” she said.

When they got home the next day, “A concrete step was left and the fireplace was gone — with my silver,” she said. The day before the bulldozer arrived to clear away the remains of their house, Frisbie used a pole to to pick through the rubble one more time and heard a jingle. “I found most of my silver,” she said. She still uses that silver service. “It’s still pitted. It went through 2 storms,” she said. “It tells a story.”

After Camille, their homeowners insurance paid enough to rebuild the house, she said. They sold it and moved to the Kiln so her husband and daughter could have horses. They found a house with the features she wanted: a traditional foundation, 9-foot ceilings and surrounded by oak trees. “It has to be on navigable water because I’m a boat person,” she told her husband.

Their insurance agent told her she didn’t need flood insurance, Frisbie said. “In Camille, the water just covered the docks,” she said. In Katrina, “I had 7 1/2 feet of water in my house.”

The home, barn and outbuilding were insured for just short of $500,000 when Katrina hit. When the couple filed an insurance claim, “They offered me $2,000,” she said. They hired an independent insurance justifier from California to fight and it went to a mediator. The offer was raised to $20,000.

“That’s heartless,” the adjuster told the Frisbies and didn’t charge for his services.

They were able to get a $30,000 grant to raze their house, but it cost $75,000 to elevate it, she said, because the fireplace also had to be raised. “It took me four years to get back to the farm,” she said. “It took all of our savings.”

Some things didn’t change from Camille to Katrina and many of the places that were rebuilt to the same building standards after the first hurricane were destroyed again. These are the similarities:

— People perished in both storms. During Camille, 143 died in Mississippi. At Trinity Episcopal Church in Pass Christian, which had stood for 120 years, 14 people died, most of them from one family. Katrina’s toll in Mississippi was 238 and 68 missing — “still missing,” said Eleuterius.

— Resilience shone through both storms. Within days of Camille, 6,000 flags waved atop the debris. Signs appeared declaring “Camille won the battle. We won the war.” The flags and the signs appeared again after Katrina. The Daily Herald carried the photos and the story of the Coast without missing a day’s publication in Camille and again after Katrina, when the staff won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting.

— Kindness. Neighbors took care of each other and used the resources they had to share the food in their freezers and the blankets on their beds with those who no longer had freezers or beds. Frisbie said one of her husband’s clients brought an ice chest full of food and a propane stove to cook it, and they used the stove again after Katrina.

— Mountains of debris. Downtown Pass Christian looked like a lumber yard after Camille, with wood filling the streets where buildings had stood. With so many homes damaged during Katrina, the sides of every street along the Coast were piled high with people’s homes and life possessions. Tires repeatedly were flattened by nails and car windshields cracked from flying debris.

— Issues lingered long after the streets were cleared and federal dollars began flowing in to rebuild. The storms left medical issues and mental stress for children who feared each thunderstorm and adults who never recovered from the storms.

— Help arrived. The military was quick to help the Coast dig out after Camille. “At the time we were in Vietnam so we had a very large military presence,” Lacy said. The airmen from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi and the Seabees from the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport also were there after Katrina, despite the damage to their own bases. The Salvation Army, Red Cross, Mennonite Disaster Services and other volunteer agencies responded to both storms. A record $1.3 million was raised after Camille when Bob Hope and other stars performed during a “We Care” telethon, while A Concert for Hurricane Relief raised $50 million after Katrina.

— The long rebuild. The stores in Edgewater Mall in Biloxi reopened in a few days after Camille and the years immediately following saw a building boom with the construction of Garden Park hospital in Gulfport and Gulf Coast Medical Center in Biloxi. New hotels were built along with the Coast Coliseum. Southern Miss and William Carey University established Coast campuses and Gulf Islands National Seashore was established. But then construction stalled, just as it did when the national recession hit South Mississippi three years after Katrina. Biloxi’s Point Cadet only came back when casinos began opening 23 years later, Carter said. The casinos all were closed by Katrina and reopened on land. Many beachfront lots remain vacant 14 years after Katrina due to the cost of wind insurance and the expense of elevating to national flood standards as South Mississippi continues to recover from Katrina.


Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com


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