JACKSON — Diane Peranich was pregnant with her fourth child when her family rode out Hurricane Camille in August 1969 at their home in the DeLisle community along the coast. The former state lawmaker said her family hunkered down in the hallway to wait out the storm.
“The wind … the intensity was like a jet engine revving up, but it kept revving up and revving up. After a while you didn’t know if you were hearing it or actually feeling it,” Peranich said Friday in a telephone interview.
While Peranich’s family knew enough to be alarmed, the gray clouds and swirling wind didn’t worry some folks along Mississippi’s scenic Gulf Coast. Neither did the warnings from civil defense officials. Storms are a way of life along the coast; for some, it was time for a hurricane party.
Only this wasn’t just another storm. This was Camille. In 1969, it was one of only two catastrophic, Category 5 hurricanes to hit the United States since record-keeping began, and it was a killer. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 eclipsed Camille as the most destructive hurricane ever to strike Mississippi’s Gulf coast, but survivors of the earlier storm will never forget its fury.
On the other side of the world Friday, the Philippines were assessing the damage and death toll from Typhoon Haiyan, a storm whose strength jarred memories of Camille.
Camille struck Aug. 17, 1969, razing towns like Gulfport where too many people took its monster threat too lightly.
The storm had wind speeds that reached 190 mph at landfall.
The late Wade Guice, the local civil defense director, and other local officials made public appeals by radio and television for those in low-lying areas to leave their homes.
An Air Force reconnaissance plane reported winds of more than 200 mph as Camille churned in the Gulf of Mexico. According to news coverage at the time, Guice described the plane’s report as “the difference between survival and 10,000 tombstones.”
Officially, 131 people died and 41 were unaccounted for after Camille hit Mississippi.
Peranich’s home was bordered by marshland, the Bay of St. Louis and the Wolf River with nothing to slow down the wind or waves.
At one point, she said the family was being drenched by icy water from holes in the roof from falling trees.
“I can’t tell you that we knew if it was rainwater or coming from the bayou,” she said. “My grandfather, who was in his 90s, was with us. He made his living in marine construction. We were listening to WWL out of New Orleans and when we heard that the wind gauge at the mouth of the (Mississippi) river was blown away, he became alarmed. He knew what we were in for,” Peranich said.
Hank Downey, of Jackson, who as a reporter for The Associated Press covered storm’s aftermath, said damage from Camille spread from far north Gulfport into Hattiesburg, Laurel and other places. The University of Southern Mississippi opened its empty dormitories to those who fled and others who survived.
“I had never seen anything like that. Before you knew anyone had died, you could look at all that and know this had to kill a bunch of people,” Downey said. “I could never imagine what I was seeing with the empty lots where homes and buildings had been.”
The greatest tragedy Downey remembered was the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, a u-shaped, brick building where residents attended a hurricane party despite warnings from officials that the building could be destroyed. Nearly two dozen people were killed.
“The only thing left was a beautiful grand piano — such a surreal sight — on a naked concrete foundation where so many people had died,” he said.
In Gulfport, little was recognizable from the shoreline to the railroad tracks several blocks inland. Almost every man-made structure on the beach was missing or disfigured. Normally busy U.S. Highway 90 was blocked by a 200-foot barge.
Peranich still remembers what her family saw once they got out of the house. “All they see — all we could — see was the (tree) stumps and the mist … and the eerie silence,” she said.
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