Fifty years since Hurricane Camille

By JAY WIENER,

Hurricane Camille hit Pass Christian on Sunday August 17, 1969. Hurricane Camille had the second lowest intensity recorded for a hurricane making landfall in the United States, at 900 millibar.    Only the 1935 Labor Day Storm, the most intense storm to make landfall in the Western Hemisphere, was lower, at 892 millibar.  Hurricane Camille created a 24-foot storm surge.  The entire Mississippi shoreline was inundated, three to four blocks inland.  One-hundred forty-three people died in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama; 116 people elsewhere.

I spoke with Northsiders Ingrid and Tim Taylor, Gulf Coast natives entering middle school at the time, about their memories.  The Taylor family and the Wiener family have been friends from at least the 1930’s, visiting between the Coast and the Northside over many years.  I anticipated unforgettable narrative but was unprepared for what was learned.

Tim’s father, Dr. C.D. Taylor, received the Laurel Wreath award in 1970, for being the Gulf Coast‘s outstanding citizen, for medical relief work after Hurricane Camille.  Hurricane forecasting was imprecise by comparison with today, and 24-hour news was nonexistent.  The Taylors were home when the hurricane hit overnight.  Window panes exploding, they rushed to respond, to keep out the rain.  The shingles blew off the roof.  Water coursed down the staircase. The family of 10 and others taking refuge with them, 21 total, went to the living room, on the north side of the house, and slept, arising to go outside while the storm eye passed.  The storm ceased before sunrise.

C.D. created a makeshift medical clinic on the front porch of his home.  Water and ice are the most important relief supplies, according to Tim.  With no electricity, C.D. emptied the medicine from his office refrigerator, put it into ice chests, and began inoculating everyone in sight against tetanus immediately.

The downtown shopping district, where C.D.’s father operated his pharmacy, was destroyed.  It was never rebuilt.

Tim’s mother, nicknamed Woogie, evacuated the younger children to her sister’s home, on State Street, in New Orleans.  St. Stanislaus opened two weeks late.  Classes were held six Saturdays to compensate.  Several of Tim’s classmates died.

Ingrid recounts that her older sister’s birthday was the day after Hurricane Camille hit.  Leslie Perry had planned a joint celebration with her friend Mary Lou Smith.  Their mothers spoke by telephone prior to the catastrophe, conceding that the gathering must be postponed.  After the birthday girls began conversing, the connection failed.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their daughters perished.  Mary Lou’s body was never recovered.  George, the youngest sibling, survived.  He was so traumatized that he committed suicide in early adulthood.  [The National Suicide Prevention Hotline telephone number is 800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day].

On the morning following the hurricane, the Perry family walked towards the beach to inspect damage.   When they saw a refrigerator with an arm holding onto it, severed from its torso, Ingrid’s mother Gisela remarked that, maybe, it was not suitable that they survey the situation.  They returned home.

Ingrid’s maternal grandparents, Mathilde and Theodore Muenster, were visiting from Uffenheim, Bavaria.  They had bottled Gluhwein for the Perrys’ Christmas party.  Ingrid’s physician father, Dr. Alton Perry, Jr. insisted on using the Gluhwein to flush toilets, worrying more about unsanitary conditions than the wrath of his in-laws.

The Muensters were in disbelief that the devastation exceeded damage done during World War II bombing in Germany.  Bombs create destruction where they land. Hurricanes wipe out everything in their path.  The Muensters flew from Baton Rouge as quickly as they could depart.

Ingrid’s family took refuge at her Natchez paternal grandparents Faye and Alton Perry’s weekend home on Lake St. John until conditions improved. 

Ingrid hoisted 14 flags during a ceremony, commemorating 14 students who died, after her academic year at Christ Episcopal Day School commenced.

A number of deaths during Hurricane Katrina are attributable to an attitude that, after Hurricane Camille, no storm could be too powerful to require evacuation.  Tim said that miscalculation arose because Hurricane Camille was 50 miles wide and moved at 20 miles an hour whereas Hurricane Katrina was 200 miles wide and moved at 10 miles an hour.

Tim and Ingrid believe that the absence of 24-hour news in 1969 was advantageous:  What to think was not suggested.  People processed grief and emotion in their own time and manner.

The Gothic Revival style St. Paul Catholic Church where the Taylors worshipped was destroyed during Hurricane Camille.  A mid-century modern structure was constructed as a replacement.  Hurricane Katrina gutted it.  Tim traveled to the coast from Jackson to inspect damage, visited the church, and found a Tampa Bay Times news team exiting when he arrived.  They said that the only thing that survived was the cross suspended over the altar.  Tim told them, “That cross is in memory of my mother.” They photographed Tim under the cross in Woogie’s memory.  The picture appeared in The Tampa Bay Times. The Cross of the Resurrection is a fitting metaphor for finding new life following disaster of Apocalyptic proportions.

Jay Wiener is a Northsider.

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