The Other Important 40th Anniversary

By Jack Williams ©2015
The aftermath of Hurricane Camile in Biloxi, Miss. NOAA photo

The aftermath of Hurricane Camile in Biloxi, Miss. NOAA photo

The Page One Cover Story in the Friday, August 14 issue of USA TODAY, “Woodstock: More of a curiosity than a benchmark in 2009?” (online) is just one among the many such stories newspapers, Web sites, and television and radio networks (including NPR) are running to mark  the 40th anniversary of the event.

In the fourth paragraph, USA TODAY writer Jerry Shriver, says the anniversary “resurrects questions of whether Woodstock’s organic, peace-and-love-through-music legacy still resonates — and whether it’s relevant to young people living in a high-tech, marketing-driven era of splintered musical tastes, widely diverse political views and short attention spans.”

This  is a good question. There can be little debate, however, that the other big news event that overlapped Woodstock’s third day should still resonate even though it isn’t getting much 40th anniversary attention.

On the night of Sunday, August 17, 1969 –originally scheduled as the last night of Woodstock — Hurricane Camille came ashore on the Mississippi Coast with 190 miles per hour winds and up to 24 feet of storm surge, killing 141 people. Two days later the storm, which had weakened to a tropical depression with winds weaker than 39 mph, brought flooding rain to Virginia’s mountains, killing another 153 people.

Camille's path during its entire lift. Yellow shows it as a tropical depression, green as a tropical storm, light red as a Category 1 or 2 hurricane, and dark red as a Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane. NOAA map.

Camille's path during its entire life. Yellow shows it as a tropical depression, green as a tropical storm, light red as a Category 1 or 2 hurricane, and dark red as a Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane. NOAA map.

An August 14 search of Google news for “Camille anniversary” turned up no stories in large newspapers, national radio or television networks Web sites, or major Web-only news sites, about the other anniversary.

Local outlets that Camille affected, haven’t forgotten. Here are two examples:

The enduring legacy of Camille that almost everyone has heard of, even though they probably don’t know it’s a legacy of Camille, is the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Potential Damage Scale that assigns each hurricane a one through five category that changes as the storm gains or loses strength.

The story of how Camille showed Bob Simpson the need for such a scale and how he and Herbert S. Saffir, a wind damage expert, created it is told on Page 236 of The AMS Weather Book. At the time Simpson was director of the National Hurricane Center and as such was in charge of forecasting Camille.

Camille proved beyond a doubt that U.S. hurricane forecasters need complete and up-to-the-minute information from airplanes that fly into hurricanes in order to issue life-saving forecasts. Text, graphics, and photos  on pages 246 through 251 of The AMS Weather Book describe why such measurements are so important, using the example of Hurricane Katrina, and how airplanes gather the needed data from inside hurricanes.

The profile of Bob Simpson and his wife Joanne (also an important atmospheric scientist) on pages 18 and 19 of the AMS Weather Book tells how Bob feared he would be fired after he told Vice President Spiro Agnew during a tour of storm damage that he couldn’t guarantee life-saving hurricane forecasts like those for Camille if the U.S. government didn’t upgrade the airplanes available for hurricane flights.

Simpson kept his job. The airplanes were upgraded, and continue to be upgraded as needed to the benefit of everyone who lives anywhere in the United States, Mexico, or around the Caribbean that a hurricane could hit.

Camille is also important because it was the first hurricane for which forecasters used what had been an experimental computer model that predicted the height of storm surge. Simpson went out on a limb using this model.

Emergency management officials credited the model’s surge prediction, a last-minute report by an Air Force WC-130 that estimated that winds around the eye were blowing at 190 mph, and Simpson’s use of this information in his bulletins with prompting last-minute evacuations that surely saved hundreds of lives.

Typical damage near the Mississippi Coast from Hurricane Camille. NOAA photo.

Typical damage near the Mississippi Coast from Hurricane Camille. NOAA photo.

Finally, one reason enough aircraft were not available to fly into Camille is that many suitable airplanes were busy at the same time conducting a Project Stormfury experiment on Hurricane Debbie far out in the Atlantic to see whether cloud seeding could weaken hurricanes.

Initial reports that the seeding had weakened Debbie led some to suggest that such seeding be used on all potentially dangerous hurricanes. But, as often with initial reports of scientific experiments, it wasn’t this simple and the Stormfury scientists disagreed with the idea that seeding should be used regularly.  More on this is found on the Explorations: Weather Control Web page on the AMS Weather Book Supplementary Texts Web site.

The details on Bob Simpson’s forecasts for Camille are told on pages 150 through 156 of Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth by Dr. Bob Sheets and Jack Williams.

Probably the most extensive examinations of what Hurricane Camille did and the lessons that should have been learned from it was published 10 years ago:  “Thirty Years After Hurricane Camille: Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost” by Roger A. Pielke, Jr., Chantal Simonpietri, and Jennifer Oxelson. It’s on the University of Colorado Center for Science and Technology Policy Research Web site.

They argue that the fact that society has “learned a lesson” doesn’t mean much will be learned. “Without fail, in the aftermath of every hurricane’s impact, general lessons for coping with hurricanes are drawn,” they write, “but typically are soon forgotten, only to have to be relearned by another community (and sometimes in the same community) in the aftermath of the next hurricane.”

This was certainly the case with Camille. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina’s eye came across Waveland, Miss., just as Camille’s eye had done, destroying or damaging several structures that had been rebuilt after Camille.  Katrina was not as strong as Camille, but it was larger and thus affected more people and their homes and businesses.

For more information

Stu Ostro of The Weather Channel writes about Camille and shoots down a couple of persistent legends about the storm on his blog.

As is often the case, the Wikipedia Camille entry is a good, and apparently accurate, summary of the storm and its effects and also a good source of bibliographic information, including links, for anyone interested in conducting serious research.

The Hurricane Center’s Preliminary Report on Camille has a great deal of information including the text of watches and warnings. It’s available as a PDF file.

The Hurricane Center’s  April 1970 report on The Atlantic Hurricane Season of 1969 by Bob Simpson, Arnold L. Sugg, and others at the NHC, published in the Monthly Weather Review, covers not only Camille but that busy season’s other unusual storms. It’s availble as a PDF file. This report is a treasure trove for anyone who’s fascinated by hurricanes.

And, as mentioned above, Hurricane Watch, the book that Bob Sheets and I wrote, has detailed histories of both hurricane flying and the Stormfury Project as well as the story of forecasting Camille, including the first operational use of a storm surge model.

[amazon-product image=”×150.jpg” type=”image”]037570390X[/amazon-product][amazon-product text=”Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth” type=”text”]037570390X[/amazon-product], co-author with Dr. Bob Sheets, retired director of the National Hurricane Center. Published in 2001 by the Vintage Books Division of Random House. Winner of the AMS 2004 Louis J. Battan Author’s Award.

A review by Keith Heidorn on his Weather Doctor Web site.

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