One night, two very different stories

I had meant to write this at some point yesterday, but by time I got back my hotel room at 10 p.m., I was emotionally drained from my meltdowns earlier.

The night of August 17, 1969 marked two watershed events in American history. They occurred 1,300 miles apart. One is remembered fondly by all who attended and by tens of millions who wish they could have attended. The other evokes horror in the memories of those who lived through it.

The first of those two events mentioned above is Woodstock, the apex of the 1960s countercultural movement. The music and art festival on a farm in Bethel, New York, drew hundreds of  thousands to hear many of the top musical acts of the day, headlined by Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and last but not least, Jimi Hendrix, whose performance did not come until 9 a.m. Monday morning, by which time only 15 percent of the original crowd remained.

Originally, the concert was to be held at an industrial park in Walkill. Patrons could purchase tickets through a post office box at Grand Central Station.

However, the zoning board of Walkill denied a permit to the Woodstock organizers, fearing large crowds would overrun their town. Therefore, the concert’s promoters had to find a new place to hold the event on very short notice.

They found a willing person in Max Yasgur, who had a dairy farm about 40 miles northwest of Walkill. Bethel is 106 miles northwest of the Empire State Building and 150 miles southeast of Syracuse. Unfortunately for the town of Bethel, the denial of the permit in Walkill increased interest in the concert exponentially, and when the day arrived, more than 400,000 people stormed the hamlet, causing massive traffic jams–30 to 35 miles–on the New York State Thruway coming from Syracuse and points west, and on I-84 and I-87 coming from New York City.

Meanwhile, something angry was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. The citizens of three coastal counties in Mississippi would bear the brunt of her fury.

Just say the word “Camille”, and many will immediately recognize what the second event of August 17, 1969 was. Not that they ever want to relive it, nor should anyone want to relive it.

Hurricane Camille was the benchmark for hurricanes from the night it terrorized the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Mississippi River delta of far southeastern Louisiana until August 29, 2005, when Katrina reset that benchmark. In many ways, Camille was and still is a record setter.

The winds were measured at 190 miles per hour–306 kilometers per hour, 165 knots–when it made landfall in western Harrison County that fateful night. By comparison, Hurricane Betsy, which roared ashore at Grand Isle, Louisiana four years earlier, had sustained winds of 145 MPH at landfall, while Katrina’s winds at landfall had slackened to 125 MPH. Camille remains one of three hurricanes to maintain category 5 (winds of over 155 MPH) intensity at landfall in the United States. The others were the 1935 Labor Day storm, which hit Florida; and Andrew, which barreled across southernmost Miami-Dade County in Florida in 1992 with winds of 165 MPH before making a second landfall in south-central Louisiana with winds of 110 MPH.

The storm entered the Gulf of Mexico Friday, August 15 after devastating western Cuba. Camille intensified rapidly to what would become Category 5 status on the Saffir-Simpson Scale–which was not introduced by the National Hurricane Center and NOAA until 1972–and was forecast to make a beeline straight for the Florida Gulf Coast between Pensacola and Panama City.

That Sunday morning, while the hippies slept in the mud and slop in Bethel, Camille changed course, instead aiming her eye directly towards Harrison County, home to two of the Magnolia State’s largest cities, Gulfport and Biloxi. Wade and Julia Guice, the husband and wife team in charge of Civil Defense for Harrison County and the city of Biloxi, respectively, immediately went into full-blown panic mode, as they should have in this instance. They went door-to-door and urged citizens to get the hell out of dodge. Some idiots refused, but many heeded the warnings of the Guices and Mississippi Governor John Bell Williams, making their way to US 49 towards Hattiesburg and Jackson.

Camille first passed right over lower Plaquemines Parish at the far southeastern edge of Louisiana. The storm surge forced the Mississippi River to rapidly rise, and the wall of water combined with the wind wiped many places from the face of the Earth. Many of the hardy souls would rebuild in the same area following Camille, only to lose all it again during Katrina.

As The Band performed their set at Woodstock, many communities in coastal Mississippi–Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Gulfport, Biloxi, D’Iberville, Pascagoula, Moss Point–experienced hell on earth as Camille roared ashore with her ridiculously powerful winds and 25-foot storm surge.

Amazingly, only 32 people died from Camille in Mississippi. “Only” 32?

First, forecasting technology was primitive at best in 1969. By time the National Hurricane Center determined Camille was headed for Mississippi, landfall was only 18 hours away. Even though the Mississippi Gulf Coast was nowhere near as populated as it was in 1969, there was –and still is–only one escape route from the coast, US 49, and that’s a lot of people to squeeze onto one highway and get them out of the danger zone.

Second, many people believed the doomsday scenarios presented by Wade and Julia Guice and Gov. Williams. They saw how bad New Orleans was hit four years prior by Betsy, and they realized this storm was far, far worse. Had it not been for the evacuation warnings, there may have been 10,000 or more dead bodies littered along US 90 from Louisiana to Alabama.

Another saving grace was Camille was very, very compact. Her eye’s diameter was all of eight miles, meaning the concentrated winds were confined to a comparatively minuscule area. By comparison, the core of Betsy’s winds was one of the largest recorded by hurricane hunter planes, and even though that storm did not pass directly over New Orleans, it was close enough and large enough to do major damage. Katrina was just as large a storm as Betsy, producing a larger storm surge, which in turn did far more damage across the entire Mississippi coast.

Camille was far from causing death and destruction.

Two days after ravaging Mississippi, she tore through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, dumping over two feet of rain on areas in under seven hours, causing rivers all across the region to rapidly overflow their banks, and triggering mind-boggling mudslides on the mountain slopes. Camille’s remnants came perilously close to inundating the entire city of Richmond, Virginia’s capital.  More than 150 people died in the flooding in the Old Dominion, still the Commonwealth’s most devastating natrual disaster.

Long before August 17, 1969 had already been a watershed year. Joe Namath’s guarantee came true in Super Bowl III. Richard Nixon moved into the White House, and Lyndon Johnson moved out. Lew Alcindor won his third NCAA basketball championship in as many years before beginning his professional career in Milwaukee. The Boston Celtics won their 10th NBA championship in 11 seasons. Warren Burger became the nation’s new Chief Justice, succeeding the iconic and controversial Earl Warren. Ted Kennedy drove his Oldsmobile off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, killing Mary Jo Koepchne and his presidential ambitions all at once. And most importantly, man walked on the moon.

There was still more to come in 1969. The Mets(?!) would win the World Series. Vince Lombardi coached the Washington Redskins to their first winning season since 1956. And on December 6, another rock festival would become intertwined with another event half a country away. Only this time, the rock festival was the tragedy.

About David

I am a sportswriter for a group of weekly newspapers in small towns across northern Kansas. I grew up in New Orleans, went to college at LSU and wandered in the wilderness until Hurricane Katrina finally put me on the path to my current job.

Posted on August 18, 2014, in History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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