NOAA 99-R237
Contact: Bob Chartuck


August marks the 30th anniversary of Hurricane Camille, the second strongest hurricane to strike the United States this century, and the National Weather Service reminds not only coastal residents, but also those living hundreds of miles inland, that rain from tropical storms can cause widespread flooding capable of extensive damage.

Camille was born west of Grand Cayman Island on August 15, 1969, and strengthened as it moved into the Gulf of Mexico. Two days later, the hurricane hit the Mississippi coast, just east of Bay St. Louis, with 190 mile-per-hour winds and 30 foot tides, killing 143 people along the seaboard from Alabama to Louisiana. Camille was only the second Category 5 storm ever to hit the mainland U.S., after a 1935 Labor Day storm struck the Florida Keys.

In the hardest hit areas along the lower Louisiana peninsula and Mississippi, more than 5,000 homes were totally destroyed with 40,000 damaged. Storm tides of 20 and 30 feet were so high that one survivor was washed over the City of Pass Christian without encountering any utility poles, buildings, or trees.

"After landfall, Camille weakened steadily as it moved on a curving path through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia," recounted William Proenza, director of the NWS Southern Region. "The heavy rains normally accompanying a dying hurricane diminished from nearly eight inches in southern Mississippi to one to two inches in eastern Kentucky as the tropical depression passed through," he said. The minimal rainfall was expected to continue on August 20th as the storm proceeded on a course through West Virginia and into central Virginia.

"In the dark hours of the night, a dramatic change occurred over the rural mountains of Virginia, said John Forsing, director of the NWS Eastern Region, who served during Camille as an Air Force weather officer at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

"Camille's remnants intensified rapidly as it turned to the east. The gentle rains that had fallen in Kentucky without causing much flooding became, in the space of a few hours and tens of miles, a torrent of precipitation," said Forsing.

In eight hours, 28 inches of rain deluged Nelson County, Va., an amount that more than tripled the state's 24 hour record–set by a 1942 hurricane–and has not been broken since. In other parts of the state, 12-14 inches came down during the night.

Al Kachic, an NWS hydrologist who served on a special survey team studying the disaster, remembered measuring rainfall in a barrel used to burn garbage. "A man had just emptied the barrel before the rain began and about a week later, the survey team came across it. I measured 27-and-a-half inches of rain in that barrel, and we also found other receptacles which had a similar amount of rainwater."

Kachic also told of the anger raised by a local police officer who had ordered the evacuation of about 20 homes near a small creek in the middle of the night. "The people were quite mad and threatened to report him to his superiors," Kachic said. "Afterward, they were thanking him for their lives. Camille's floods left nothing of the houses."

Record flooding occurred in the streams all along Camille's path through Virginia. Flash floods and numerous landslides devastated the countryside as Camille's remnants moved rapidly across the state before exiting into the Atlantic Ocean. Flash flooding along headwater streams and tributaries of the James River was followed by record flooding along the main stem of the river all the way to Richmond where the tidal estuary begins, Kachic noted.

The state of Virginia counted 113 dead with 39 missing with total damages amounting to more than $116 million ($534 million in 1997 dollars). The floods, rain-induced landslides, and property damage indicated that this event was the worst natural disaster ever to strike the state. Camille's total damage was estimated at $1.4 billion at the time ($6.45-billion in 1998 dollars).

"Camille caused emergency managers to rethink ways to reduce storm fatalities," said Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "Today, coastal evacuation is mandatory in many locales, making the strategy so successful that now, virtually no casualties are caused by storm surge flooding."

The Hurricane Center's recent research shows more people lose their lives to freshwater floods developing after hurricanes make landfall than from accompanying wind, waves, and storm surge. "In fact, nearly half of the 256 fatalities caused by Camille were the result of freshwater flooding," Jarrell said.

Another area of huge potential loss, in addition to inland floods and mudslides, is traffic jams during mass evacuations. For example, Jarrell noted that a highway construction project snarled traffic and left 10,000 people on roadways near Pensacola, Fla., when Hurricane Opal caused $3 billion worth of damage in 1995. "If the storm had not taken a turn away from the traffic jam, thousands of people could have been killed," Jarrell said.

The bottom line, the hurricane expert said, "If you are told to evacuate, do so immediately. If your area is not evacuated, stay off the roads and stay put."

Jarrell added: "As we start the new millennium, devastating storms such as Camille will be tracked by an array of modern technology and an infrastructure designed to forecast, observe, warn, and respond. Our forecasters have powerful tools to assist them in tracking hurricanes and estimating their precipitation."

Jarrell points to today's modernized weather service technology, including Doppler radar, which can track and measure precipitation and winds in a storm; weather satellites; and automated river and rain gauges to measure rainfall and river levels that give forecasters the upper hand.

The weather service's Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) and powerful weather forecast models allow for rapid creation and dissemination of forecasts, watches, and warnings to the public, news media, and the emergency management infrastructure.

"Once our warnings and forecasts are disseminated, state, county, and local emergency management personnel implement their plans and programs to save lives and property,"Jarrell said.

"Hurricanes, tropical storms, and tropical depressions can have life-threatening impacts hundreds of miles inland," Forsing concluded. "We encourage the public to be alert to–and prepared for–any hurricane's heavy rain, lightning, tornadoes, floods and flash floods."

On average, the Atlantic hurricane season produces about nine tropical storms and six hurricanes, with two being intense hurricanes. Tropical storms have maximum sustained winds of 39 to 73 miles per hour. They become hurricanes when those winds exceed 74 mph, the weather service said.