Forty-five years ago this very day, it took my Aunt Penny nearly ten hours to weave her way around downed trees, flooded roads, ruined bridges, snapped telephone poles, and live wires between New Orleans and Pass Christian, Miss. It’s usually just a one-hour drive. But this was in the immediate, same-day wake of Hurricane Camille, still the strongest named storm in U.S. history.
Her parents (my grandparents) had been traveling, and they had returned to their Pass Christian home just the evening before. When Penny spoke to them from her New Orleans apartment as the storm bore in, they were frantically putting their silver and other valuables in the attic in case floodwaters seeped into the house, which fronted the highway right along the beach. They would stay with friends six miles inland, in an unincorporated hamlet called DeLisle.
But, of course, Penny couldn’t reach them by phone after the storm, whose strongest, 175-mph sustained winds had come ashore directly at the tiny town my grandparents made home. (Out in the Gulf, its winds had exceeded 200 mph, and gusts at landfall almost certainly exceeded 190.) So, “worried to death about them because I knew nothing,” she drove her Toyota Corolla, with her curmudgeonly dog, Charlie, in the passenger seat, trying to find a viable route. One National Guardsman tried to stop her at a checkpoint, but she said, “I don’t know if my parents are dead or alive, so I’m not gonna let you stop me.” Charlie, mostly beagle but with the ability “to look like a bull mastiff if he had to,” obliged by snarling menacingly at the Guardsman. He let them through.
Finally and exhaustedly arriving at the friends’ house in DeLisle, Penny found no structural damage, and an open book next to a drink. But not a soul was around, so she continued toward the beach, using the Corolla as an off-road vehicle, driving through people’s yards, around debris — whatever it took to get to her parents’ house. Along the way, she met a straggler, who panicked her even more by saying, “I’m so sorry to hear about Carter [Penny’s brother, my uncle]: I heard he died in the storm.”
Finally, arriving at the back driveway to the house, by this time nearing dusk, she saw . . . all the way through the lot to the Gulf. Not a single beam or board remained of the house — nothing except for the brick front steps.
But — relief! There was my grandmother, blood on her forehead (it turned out to be a just a minor scrape), wandering, in a daze, around what once had been her back yard, looking fruitlessly for mementos. Further toward the beach, there sat my grandfather on those brick steps, with a wistful expression of resignation, drinking a beer.
“Oh, Penny,” were his first words, while he tried to force at least half a smile. Tipping the beer in her direction and then at the empty lot, he said, “We didn’t know you were coming. I’m sorry, but your mother didn’t get your bed ready for you.”
* * *
As it turned out, Uncle Carter was fine. He had stayed in a safer place east of where the storm made landfall and had arrived by bike to help out most of the day before returning east for the evening. (It was he, I believe, who had secured the beer for my grandfather.) My great-aunt and great-uncle and great-grandmother survived as well, riding out the storm in a solidly built nursing home whose back portion stayed intact even as some of its front crumbled. But Pass Christian as a whole was in smithereens. Hundreds of stately homes were just plain gone. The antebellum Trinity Episcopal Church (see fourth pair of images here), supposedly indestructible after withstanding 18 previous hurricanes, had been used as a shelter by the sexton’s large family. It had stood almost catty-corner to my grandparents’ house, less than 100 yards away. It was leveled. Fifteen people died inside.
At the Richelieu Apartments on the beach, rumors of 23 people dying at a “hurricane party” weren’t exactly true, although eight people did die after refusing to evacuate. And, earlier in the evening, there had indeed been at least one, smallish party. At least that’s what one lady told me, just a year ago, when I met her at my cousin’s shop (Hillyer House, which my grandmother founded after Camille, originally as a way to buy furniture wholesale so her friends, rebuilding after the storm, could better afford to refurbish their houses). The lady I talked with, of college age at the time of Camille, was with a date at the party, she said, but her mother called her on the phone and ordered her home. She never heard from her date again.
All told, 143 people died along the coast, and another 113 in inland flooding.
Just off the coast, Ship Island, a third of a mile wide, was split in two. In Louisiana, the Mississippi River actually flowed backward some 125 miles, all the way past New Orleans.
Until Hurricane Katrina (2005), with weaker winds at landfall but an even larger storm surge, just about everybody on the Mississippi coast referred to local events as being either “Before Camille” or after. Camille was the dividing line, the demarcation point, for more than three decades. Nothing worse was imaginable. And in its concentrated wind fury, nothing has topped it since.
* * *
Before we all got addicted to satellite imagery, hurricanes seemed not just less predictable but far more mysterious. Just two days before Camille hit, my parents, my brother, and I had been in Pass Christian, enjoying bright sunshine after my brother and I had crawled in “secret passages” of some antebellum house (I think it was actually a museum of sorts), pretending we were pirates. My parents were largely oblivious to the coming catastrophe; we were en route to a five-day stay in the North Carolina mountains. I was five; it all seemed so idyllic.
What I saw a week later, returning to New Orleans, still stays with me. As far east as Biloxi, 23 miles away, fronts of building were caved in, windows were blown out, and massive ships were beached far from water. When we reached Pass Christian, I just didn’t understand it. Where was Granny’s house?
One sign of hope sustained me. Back in Biloxi, a beachside Goofy Golf miniature-golf course had been mangled and mostly covered in sand. But its signature feature, a giant dinosaur, still stood, mostly unmarred, among the wreckage. The dinosaur was my favorite landmark on the whole coast; because it survived, I told my mother, I was sure the coast would survive and recover as well.
(Children have a gift for finding silver linings, and maybe there’s wisdom in that. If the coast could recover from Camille, and later Katrina, maybe the nation can survive the Obama presidency.)
Back at my grandparents’ denuded lot, the silver and other valuables that had been in the attic, along with decades of family photos and everything else from inside the house, had been entirely swept away, never to be found. Well, almost everything. As Penny remembers it, one set of items remained mostly, and miraculously, intact. The items originally came from just down the road, from the Pass Christian Yacht Club, right on the harbor, which of course had been likewise obliterated. My grandfather had served as the club “commodore” (in essence, the club chairman) and had overseen its rebuilding after Hurricane Betsy just four years earlier — only to see his work ruined by Camille. But something of the PCYC remained: The club had kept, for nearly three decades, a stash of exceptionally good bootleg liquor, of many varieties, dating from the days of thumbing noses at Prohibition. At one point, more as keepsakes than anything else, the club sold off those bottles — and my grandfather had bought a few, which he stored under the tiny bar just off the kitchen.
The bootleg bottles survived. Amid so much destruction, as they say, one should take any port in a storm.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.