Daily Herald publisher remembers the night Hurricane Camille hit the Coast
We asked our readers to email us their Hurricane Camille memories ahead of the 50th anniversary on Aug. 17.
Here are the responses that we received.
Editor’s note: Some responses have been shortened or edited for clarification and brevity.
My family lived on Victory Street off of Courthouse (Road in Gulfport). We got on mattresses in the hallway. The weather man said the winds had reached 200 mph, the power shut off, and it was dark and scary but no one was hurt. My mother and grandmother worked at Leeloys restaurant on the beach, and we helped them look for a suitcase they had put some money in. We dug through the rubble and never found anything but dishes that I still have. I remember dead cows on the beach and the damage was so bad.
William W. Bradford
I was on active duty with the Navy in Millington, Tennessee. I took a three-day pass to come home on Aug. 17, 1969. I was a volunteer fireman since age 15 in Waveland. For six hours, we fought fires even though the fire trucks were submerged. We use hard-suction hoses since the streets were waist-deep in salt water. We were able to save the Waveland drug store and Louise Lynch was able to live there for 36 years raising her seven daughters (she was a widow). When I returned to the hospital, the captain reamed me out since I was four days AWOL. He asked me why I did not send a telegram — I told him there was nothing standing in Waveland.
When my dad woke me the night Camille came to Mississippi, he gathered our family of five in the hallway of our relatively new but small home in Hattiesburg. He and I removed my bunk bed mattresses and created a pup tent in the hallway right at the bathroom door. We sang, we prayed and we tried to sleep. My parents were worried but they were brave and encouraged us even though they were fearful. There were loud bangs hitting the roof. At first we could not decipher the sound. I asked my father why people were shooting at us. He deducted that what was hitting our roof was actually green pine cones from the large pine trees that surrounded our home. Huge, sappy green pine cones. There were hundreds of them in the yard after the storm. The eye of the storm was amazing. So quiet and still. I finally fell asleep and woke up to a nightmare on my street and in South Mississippi. I was shocked at the devastation as I realized that the world had changed forever.
I will never, ever, forget the devastation Hurricane Camille did to our pretty little town and all the lives that were lost. In fact, my parents’ house was a block from the infamous Richelieu Apartments where the so-called hurricane party took place and so many people lost their lives. My mother had just moved her friends, Zoe and Jack Matthews, into those apartments that weekend. Zoe was confined to a wheelchair and both of them perished. Her wheelchair was found but I don’t think their bodies ever were.
When Hurricane Camille hit, I was 12 years old. Me, my mom, dad and little sister rode it out at the old Dukate Elementary School on Howard Avenue in east Biloxi. At one point during the hurricane, we were forced onto the second floor as the first floor filled up with water. As luck would have it, the eye came through and the wind changed direction and started pushing the water back out. When we got to go home, we discovered that we no longer had a home. We lost everything we owned except what we took to the school with us.
David White Sr.
I was in the Navy at the time. It was my birthday and my ship USS Lexington was dry-docked in Boston. I was given some tickets as a present from a friend to a “happening” in upstate New York. It was the Woodstock concert. I was there Friday and Saturday that weekend, then I flew home to visit my family in Gulfport to finish celebrating my birthday. This was the longest weekend in my life. As soon as I landed and met my mom, she told me we had to get out of town, but I didn’t know why! She said there was a terrible hurricane coming and it was going to be bad, I hadn’t heard about it at all so we headed to Hattiesburg to be safe. It was during this time my mother Mrs. Gina Flory, drove for Yellow Cab company of Gulfport. When we got back, it was devastation everywhere.
One of the few “gifts” from Camille was an outhouse that was placed upright in our yard. The entire Mississippi Gulf Coast was declared a disaster area and those affected by Hurricane Camille were allowed to apply for Small Business Administration loans. My dad’s itemized list of damaged household goods included such items as floor furnaces, television, freezer, washing machine, refrigerator, sewing machines, bedroom suites, food and clothing. For years thereafter, and still occasionally, when something was missing, we’d say “Camille got it.” But Camille didn’t get our sense of family. If anything, we became stronger.
That night as the storm came in, we moved out into the hallways as the high winds blew out the plate-glass windows in our rooms. I was never scared or concerned. It was just a long night. The next morning, we began to move about. I left the hotel the back way to check on my car. To my surprise, the car started. For some reason, I went around the building to reenter the hotel from the front. I looked across the street to find the BV motel south of Highway 90 gone. I looked behind me to discover the mezzanine was washed out. The second floor lobby above the mezzanine was gutted. At that point I realized we were subjects of a very close call. I can still remember the chill that came over me when thinking about what could have happened. Someone was looking out for us. We were very lucky.
My mom, Caroline Warden, was about 27 years old at the time and my sister was about 7. They were with my aunt and her son. They stayed in New Orleans and survived the storm. My mom told me she remembers her sister carrying my sister while she carried my cousin through waist-deep water after the storm. As they were walking, my mom said she stopped because she looked down and almost stepped on someone whom did not make it through the storm.
I was 15 months old when Camille hit. We lived at 223 Balmoral Ave. (Edgewater Park subdivision) next to the mall. The house survived Betsy, Camille, Katrina and pretty much everything in between. I didn’t live there when Katrina hit, but I understand that Frederick damaged the house more than Betsy or Camille. My mom tells me that we stayed in the Edgewater Hotel during Camille, sleeping on a mattress in the closet during the storm. My brother was 2 months old during Camille. I understand that the house was without power for less than a week because out-of-town electrical workers were staying at the Edgewater Hotel and the neighborhood was on the same grid.
I lived in Jackson at the time, but was in Biloxi at the Seashore Methodist Assembly for the weekend as a 14-year-old kid. Around 10 a.m. it was just becoming squally, with dark skies, heavy rain, etc. Us kids cut our trip to the Coast short, getting on a bus at 2:30 p.m. for a return to Jackson, with little thought of what would come. And the rest is history!
Oh, the memories. I was 13 years old and lived in Jones County, roughly 90 miles north of Gulfport. I don’t remember much in the way of preparation, but I remember something breaking off of the window panes during the storm. Rain was blowing in and soaking my bed. The wind was so strong that dad couldn’t figure out how to keep the water from coming in. Mom, in all her brilliance, grabbed a Simplicity Pattern catalog. I don’t know why she had that, but I’m glad she did. She raised the window and put that between the window screen (which was ripped from whatever broke the window) and the window and closed the window.
I was 17 when she hit and was working as a bellhop at the Buena Vista Hotel at the time. My dad was a detective for the city of Biloxi and brother-in-law was a fireman. They had to work during storms and hurricanes. My mother, two sisters, nephew and I stayed at the Buena Vista that night. Looking back, I see what a dumb move that was! The wind was deafening and blew out the large picture window in the room, so we went into the hallway with everyone else. An hour or so later the hotel started moving, swaying in the wind. Everyone felt it. No one was prepared for what we saw the next morning! Every structure was gone.
Bernard Snead Jr.
We watched window frames breathing from the winds, pine trees kissing ground and multiple neighbors’ roofs ripped off. We had minor street flooding in Espana Woods being about 28 feet above sea level, but that left everything exposed to wind damage.
Hurricane Camille was my family’s first hurricane on the Coast, as we had just moved here in 1968. My mom lived through the hurricane of 1938 in Connecticut. My mother-in-law’s family (aunts, uncles, parents, cousins, siblings — the Andersons, Schmidts, Kowalskis and Schruffs) mostly lived near 2nd Street in the Pass, and everyone lost everything they owned. She has told me stories of how badly the wind was howling that night, about friends she lost in the storm, about being moved into mobile homes afterwards, etc.
The back wall of one bedroom where all the Boudreaux boys had slept was gone, a gaping hole looking toward the marshes. Here laid the house where I had grown up. This home that only a week earlier was full of happiness as we prepared for our wedding. All but the memory was destroyed by the fury of a storm.
My memory concerns the Kittiwake Baptist Campground in east Pass Christian and its manager. The campground was virtually demolished by the storm surge and wind. However, it had one significant asset, an artesian well, free-flowing through an 8-inch pipe. A day or two after the storm, the manager returned to the campground to salvage his family’s belongings, if any. While there, he plumbed the artesian wellhead to provide the community with a continuous supply of fresh clear water. He constructed showers, washtubs and cooler filling stations. I wish I knew his name, but I doubt he ever told us.
I was spending the summer of 1969 with my sister and her family in Pascagoula. My brother-in-law was a doctor and his nurse called us to ask if we were going to evacuate and go stay at the hospital. We were used to hurricanes so we weren’t really nervous about it, but we did make preparations. We thought the storm was heading toward Florida. We invited another doctor and his wife to come over since they lived on the beach. We stayed awake all night. The next day, my brother went in a plane with the police chief and others to survey the damage from the air. The pictures he took were unbelievable — total devastation.
Worked in the governor’s office at the time. I came down on Highway 49 a day after. The storm was more dangerous than expected, with water up to the second floor. Camille came in, hit the Coast and it was gone. There were multiple bodies floating in the Gulf of Mexico. The storm sucked the bodies and coffins out of the ground.
We lived in Bayou View, but during the hurricane we were in the Edgewater Hotel’s WVMI radio station. We had the only tower left on the Coast as it was located in Ocean Springs. Jack Beattie, my husband, was manager of the station and many of our employees had no place to go, so we shopped for supplies and manned the station for the storm. The highway patrol would report in on what roads were covered and other such news, we in turn would report that to our audience. At one point, a little after midnight, a patrolman came in and gave me a list of people staying at a large condominium project in Pass Christian. When I looked at it, he said that they had been there several times telling the “hurricane” party people to get out and when they wouldn’t, he had them sign their name and unit # so they could be identified. They all died except one lady who was fit and swam to a tree and hung on!
I lived through Hurricane Camille, but I know someone who lived through it better. He was Ben Duckworth, and he survived the destruction of the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian. The day after Hurricane Camille, Walter Cronkite “the most trusted man in America,” told the world that at the Richelieu twenty-four people laughed in the face of death, had a hurricane party, and twenty-three of them died. The only survivor was Mary Ann Gerlach. That bit of fake news has fueled Camille’s best-known urban legend for half a century despite all efforts to correct it. For more than 40 years, Duckworth denied that there had been a party and that 23 had not died and one lived. According to Duckworth, eight had died and six had lived. Mary Ann Gerlach was a survivor, but so was he. He stood on the site of the Richelieu Apartments on the 40th anniversary of Camille and told me the truth. Ben has since died, so I am telling you the truth for him.
Debris piled up at the RR tracks at least two stories high with the remains of so many homes and contents included. We made our way to West Side Park and there were 1,200 pounds of rolled paper from the Gulfport Ship Harbor Docks everywhere. All of the landmarks were gone. West Ward School was leveled and tools were everywhere from the service station right in front of it on the beach. An old antebellum home in that vicinity was partially standing and we heard some human noises coming from the pile of rubble.
All of the memories of Hurricane Camille will forever be with all of us who lived through it and are old enough to remember. It was truly an unforgettable experience! So when my husband (from Texas) wanted to name our first child “Camille,” I was quite hesitant. I said we could not do such a thing, even though I really loved the name. However, after giving birth, three days went by and we still hadn’t named her. They would not let me check out of the hospital without giving my baby a name. And so it came to be that we named her Camille Marie, and as a child, she proved to be a bit of a hurricane, fittingly living up to her name!
In my opinion, my wife Jeanne suffered from PTSD after that. She was scared of even the slightest of severe weather and would hide in a closet during those violent summertime thunderstorms. As she got older, it didn’t get much better. She said sometimes when they were doing construction or building something on the Coast and would dig, she could smell that mud from Camille when they brought the dirt up from the hole.
Our home was on East Howard Ave. Myself and other relatives rode out Camille in the “projects” where the Point Fire Station is located. Camille had a frightful sound of “freight trains.” The “projects” had second story built out of cement. We were all in the kitchen area when we started to feel water under our feet. I flashed an old time “wick”-type fire lamp and noticed the kitchen window looking like an “aquarium.” Day break was an awful sight as homes were piled on top each other. As I worked my way toward our home by way of Highway 90, climbing over tree top debris, I was able to see what was left of our Point Cadet home, absolutely nada!
My husband was stationed at Keesler at the time. We lived on East Beach, where the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum stands now. At 6 p.m. the report came across to expect 170 mph winds and she was not going to Florida. We had decided to go to Hattiesburg. No one was behind us going out. The water was coming over the sea wall and was half way up the car door and trees were falling beside us. When we finally got back in on Monday, it was so devastating. I could not tell where we were. There were three dead bodies in our yard, including a baby. The baby’s mother was under one of those rubble piles we climbed over. In 5 months we were in Germany with almost nothing to our names. This was a life-changing event for two 20-year-olds.
We lived on West Beach Blvd. in Gulfport. We jumped out the window with our baby as the water crashed in and tore our house down to the slab. My husband’s father drowned next door. His house was flattened also.
My father told me that when Camille came, they were at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island. They were going to do what they could to save what they had. They moved the food and supplies to the second floor of the building to protect them. The storm got stronger and eventually they got to the fort and took shelter is a second floor room. Before the actual storm got there, waves were breaking half way across the island. When the waves would hit the fort, the whole fort would shutter. The next morning they found nothing out there. The concession stand got washed away and about half of the lighthouse was gone.
Our downstairs was devastated. The smell of debris, which followed the hurricane, will never be forgotten. Its funny, we had a huge oak mirror with a bottom base that did not move during the hurricane. It was right next to the front door. My parents still have that same mirror in their house in North Mississippi. My mom went into camping mode, cooking on portable gas burners. Camille left me with an insecurity of nature, especially oceans, not being my friend. My mom said that every time it rained, I would run outside to see if the ocean was coming down the street.
A few days after the storm, I returned to work. GE sent us to the infirmary to get “shots,” then loaded us in pickup trucks with chainsaws. We were asked if we would want to volunteer for a “body detail.” I declined. The next day we were again asked if we wanted to serve on a “body detail.” One of my fellow GE employees, who had declined the day before, volunteered because the body detail had been sent to a school which had a cafeteria cooler/freezer full of chicken.
I have many memories of the night Camille hit, but the one I would like to focus on most is the fact that my father, Cecil M. Copeland, and my uncle, James C. Windham, stayed on Ship Island in Fort Massachusetts the night of the storm. My parents, CM Copeland and Frances E. Copeland, had recently leased the concession stand business on the island for the summers. Captain Peter Skrmetta informed my father of his last run to Gulfport because of the weather, but my father opted to stay on the island. He wanted to put some supplies, equipment and personal family belongings inside the fort for safe keeping. My uncle James stayed to help my father. They worked getting things into the fort until the water over took their efforts. Climbing the stairs to the top of the fort, the two of them stayed in a room we called the powder room. My father said he stood on the top of the fort and watched the waves pour over the island, taking away our home, the buildings, the water tower, and the pier.
I fell asleep before light came, but my sleep was restless. I had prayed the Lord’s Prayer all night over my sleeping children and the words continued as I slept. I prayed for my extended family a few blocks away at Shearwater Pottery, my mother who had elected to stay with her friend Ellen Meade across town on Lover’s Lane and for friends whose faces would suddenly appear in my broken dream. When I awoke, the gusts were still puffing but I knew the storm was over. My hands felt sticky and bruised. Pine sap? No, I had clenched my finger nails into my palms as I prayed and there was blood!
I had slept on the sofa for several hours when I felt what I assumed was rain dripping on me. I suspected we were losing part of the roof. About that time, lightening flashed and I noticed my grandmother standing next to the sofa above me. She was shaking something and I realized that was where the water I felt was coming from. I exclaimed: Mommaw — what are you doing? Her reply was: I’m blessing us with Paul’s holy water. Paul’s holy water was kept in its original container since he returned from the trenches of France from WWI. My grandfather had been in the army for several years (including duty in Mexico chasing Pancho Villa) when our country joined the European war in 1917. The morning following the nighttime storm was fairly calm. My car was covered in tree limbs and other debris, but worked just fine a few days later when I was able to use the roads which had been cleared. I had to walk to my mother’s house that morning and saw many things I will never forget. While walking, I couldn’t help but think of that Lourdes holy water and what powers my grandmother’s faith in it had obviously produced for us that night. I remain grateful.
I had accepted a teaching job at Woolmarket Elementary School for the fall before Camille hit. We were living at Brittany Apartments on Debuys Road. Our apartment survived despite being very close to the beach. I remember all the destruction on Highway 49 coming back after the storm. Debris was in huge piles on the sides of the road. Steps leading up to nothing and entire complexes and neighborhoods were gone. For weeks, bodies were found and the smells were terrible. I remember seeing family pictures and dainty unbroken teacups in the gutters on Highway 90. We taught school in trailers for a long time, but the Coast came back strong.
Betty Lou Hamilton Reyer
Mama was 75 years old and never thought about being afraid. We had to place a chair down and climb up to the attic with water up to our knees. All we had was a kerosene lamp and a sick cat. When we came down water was still to our knees and my car wouldn’t start.
Maxine’s Beauty Salon was a small three-person salon at the far west end of a one-story retail building. The larger anchor stores in the shopping center were A&P Grocery Store and Triplett Day drug store. After Hurricane Betsy damaged the shopping center in 1965, she expanded into the large end cap space after the Salloums repaired the building. The salon was renamed “Maxine’s Carousel of Beauty,” because she had two carousels of work stations and enough room then for 8-10 stylists. She operated in that space successfully until Hurricane Camille destroyed the shopping center.
The howling sound of the wind was incredible. You could barely hear people talking inside the house! At one point, my brother opened the back door and a gust of wind ripped it off. Oddly, the electricity was still on. At approximately 10:30 p.m. a horrific roar came. Dad yelled, “Everyone, get down.” The house exploded! A tornado had hit! You couldn’t see; you couldn’t hear; you couldn’t stand up. There we were, all 19. From a one-month-old infant to an 83-year-old. We were pinned down for approximately two and a half hours. My grandmother was pushed out of her wheelchair and my oldest brother held a mattress over her for the duration.