Gulfport, Mississippi and Bethel, New York are 1,283 miles (2,065 kilometers) apart.
It would seem as these two locales would have absolutely nothing in common.
Yet they are forever linked by 17 August 1969.
Those who were in Bethel that day remember it fondly and wish they could go back.
Those in Gulfport that day would probably like to forget.
Thirty days after Ted Kennedy drove Mary Jo Koepechne to her death off Martha’s Vineyard, 28 days after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, nine days after Sharon Tate and four others were brutally butchered by Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenewinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Tex Watson on orders of Charles Manson, there came an August Sunday which made not one, but two, indelible impressions on the United States of America.
Woodstock, held on Max Yasgur’s Dairy Farm, a little more than 100 miles (160 km) from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, was filled with three and a half days of “peace, love and music”. The names of those who performed that weekend are legendary: Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who. The list of those who didn’t perform may have been just as impressive: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were among those who said no.
There were hopes for a 50th anniversary Woodstock. Many of the performers at the original festival who are still alive were invited. However, it never got off the ground and was cancelled in June. It would have been held at the Watkins Glen automobile race course, about 155 miles (250 km) west-northwest of Bethel.
Two years after Woodstock, organizers attempted a similar festival in Louisiana. They found some land on a levee along the Atchafayla River in Pointe Coupee Parish, 60 miles (97 km) northwest of Baton Rouge and 80 miles (128 km) southeast of Alexandria.
The Festival of Life was nothing short of a disaster. Needless to say, nothing like that has been attempted again in Louisiana.
While 400,000 were having the time of their lives in New York, residents of the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Panama City were dealing with something which was certainly not peaceful.
Hurricane Camille crossed the western tip of Cuba hours before Richie Havens opened Woodstock. Once it emerged into the hot waters (30 degrees Celsius/86 F) of the Gulf of Mexico, it exploded, surpassing the intensity of Betsy, which had winds of 145 miles per hour (223 km/h) when it crossed the Louisiana coast at Grand Isle the evening of 9 Sepember 1965 and caused over $1 billion of damage and 76 deaths in what would become my native state.
Camille’s winds reached 170 miles per hour (265 km/h) as it made it way steadily towards the Florida panhandle the afternoon of 16 August. From Pensacola to Panama City, thousands of residents headed north into Georgia and Alabama.
The next morning, Camille was still on her inexorable march towards land.
The target, however, had shifted dramatically westward.
The storm had shifted to a north-northwest track, a path which would lead it straight towards New Orleans. It appeared the storm would follow a path eerily similar to Betsy’s, making landfall approximately 25 miles (40 km) east of Grand Isle.
If that occurred, New Orleans would have been utterly destroyed. My parents would have perished.
Eventually, the storm took a due north heading, crossing the mouth of the Mississippi River. It wiped much of southern Plaquemines Parish (county) off the map. Fortunately, evacuation orders were followed and nobody died in Louisiana.
Mississippi was not as fortunate.
The storm crossed the coast on the border between Hancock and Harrison counties. Pass Christian was ground zero. The small town between Bay St. Louis and Gulfport was blown away. Nothing remained standing.
Had the storm come in a few miles/kilometers further east, Gulfport would have been ground zero, and Biloxi would have been devastated more than it already was.
The wind speed at landfall will never be known. The wind measuring instruments in Gulfport and Biloxi were demolished. J
The storm killed 160 in Mississippi, but Camille wasn’t done.
Her remnants dumped buckets of rain on northern Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky before once again exploding in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.
This time, nobody had any notion of what was coming. Over 100 people perished in the Old Dominion, and floodwaters came dangerously close to leaving Richmond completely swamped. Richmond and Roanoke, two of the commonwealth’s largest cities, were spared the worst, but it was of little consolation.
Twenty-five years ago this morning, I almost died because of my own stupidity.
It was that Sunday I moved into my dormitory at LSU in advance of my first semester of college.
I almost didn’t make. I probably shouldn’t have.
The night before, I slept maybe three hours. I left my house in New Orleans at 0600. My father followed me to help me move my belongings into my sardine of a room at Power Hall, which thankfully has been demolished and replaced with modern apartments.
This was the first time I drove from New Orleans to Baton Rouge alone. I knew the route, but every time, my dad was with me.
The first 50 miles (80 km) was fine.
Suddenly, I found myself drifting off the road to my right.
I fell asleep shortly after the St. James/Ascension parish line. I panicked and cut the wheel of my 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier sharply to the left. That took me across both lanes of traffic and into the median. By time I was done, I was facing westbound in the eastbound lanes of traffic.
If it were any other time except Sunday morning, I would have been dead or paralyzed.
I was beyond lucky that no traffic was coming either way. I crossed the median and continued my journey.
When I got to the McDonald’s on Louisiana Highway 30 in Gonzales to meet my dad for breakfast, I told him. He agreed I was very, very lucky.
Power Hall featured seven two-story units, rather than one high-rise. I am grateful I lived on the first floor. Climbing the stairs carrying things would have been hellish.
There was a communal bathroom and shower just down the hall. I made sure I took my shower early in the morning so I didn’t have others in there. I don’t recall anyone else ever using a shower at the same time I did.
I had a private room at Power Hall, so it was a little better. I would not want anyone to have to deal with me as a roommate, nor do I care to have someone else in my room. I like my privacy.
When I returned to LSU in January 1997, the department of campus housing did not give me a private dorm room at Kirby-Smith Hall, a high rise on the northwest edge of campus. After sleeping in the room for two nights, I hastily moved off-campus. Lucky for me, the person who was assigned to the room had not checked in, so I was alone. That worked out better, because it allowed me to stay in Baton Rogue year-round. I should have thought it out better when I first went to LSU.
The efficiency I lived in for the last two and a half years at LSU was a rat trap. I was desperate and I didn’t want to make my parents pay an outrageous sum, so I took what I could find. I lived to tell the tale.
There are so many things I wish I had done differently in college. Leaving LSU after my first year was a huge mistake. Not paying attention in class was another. I cry about it. A lot.
High school football is cranking up. I want to be back in Louisiana covering games on Friday night. Kansas high school football is severely lacking.
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.