THE LADY WAS A KILLER

When the wicked swirl of Hurricane Camillie hit the Gulf Coast last summer it claimed 258 lives and, amid nearly $1.5 billion in destruction, took a heavy toll of pleasure boats. The nightmare experience of four Sunday sailors who barely survived gives the statistics fearful immediacy
March 09, 1970

In the Vieux Carré two men in sneakers padded down the stairs from the black iron balcony of their apartment above an art gallery on the Rue Royale and went off to buy several bottles of gin and a quart of olives. It was Friday afternoon, Aug. 15, 1969, and the skies were fair to the south above the marshy delta toward the Gulf of Mexico, but there was a storm far down there somewhere, coming up from the Caribbean, and if it did reach the Louisiana coast there would be many parties in the Quarter. The two gin-buyers would be prepared. They—and many people like them—would sit around on wicker furniture, listen to wind and rain smash the shutters and pretend they were marooned and in danger together, although of course it was deeply comforting to believe New Orleans would receive no more than a noisy shower out of the storm as it approached and passed away.

On the 14th floor of the Federal Building on Loyola Avenue, W. Clyde Connor and E. L. Hill of the U.S. Weather Bureau were trying to draw the route of this storm, which had formed a day earlier in the northwest Caribbean. By now it had a name—Camille—and had moved across the Isle of Pines, dumping 10 inches of rain on the gauges at the old Cuban prison. Traveling northwesterly at about 10 miles an hour, Camille tore up the tobacco fields on the western end of Cuba after dark on Friday at the height of the harvest season. Rainwater flowed down the mountains in a flood and wind ripped away the tender crops. The storm appeared to be bending toward Mobile and Pensacola, but many expected it to turn farther east and hit the Florida coast above St. Petersburg. At the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Dr. Robert H. Simpson said, "This could become one of the great storms, although it's too soon to tell. We can't predict the course right now. But somebody will get a beating."

The Seminole Indians of Florida's swamps believe they can forecast the path of a tropical cyclone—also called a hurricane or, in the Western Pacific and China Sea, a typhoon—by the leaning of the saw grass and the deepening green of the seaweed. The U.S. Weather Bureau seeks to do the same thing by using airplanes, ships, orbiting satellites, computers and educated men. But actually, on Friday afternoon, nobody knew where Camille was going.

Some feared the storm would continue directly on the path it took as it crossed Cuba and would strike the U.S. coast at Galveston, where 69 years earlier a hurricane had hurled 15-foot tides onto the island and killed 6,000 people. Tropical cyclones that start in the Atlantic, Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico are usually embedded in easterly winds but have a compulsion to turn toward higher latitudes. The storm struggles with itself, opposing winds whirl its tentacles counterclockwise and where it will hit is a matter of gambling guesswork until very late in the storm's life. A slight drift while the storm was yet 36 hours away from the coast would make a great difference in where Camille would eventually reach the shore. At the National Hurricane Center in Miami and in weather stations all along the Gulf Coast they waited for Camille to commit itself.

On Saturday morning hurricane-hunting airplanes were unable to penetrate to the eye of Camille, which was now in the Gulf. The Navy had Constellation aircraft on hurricane duty that weekend. The old Connies operate at low altitude and cannot invade a hurricane that has winds of higher than 125 knots. For hurricane patrol the Air Force had C-130s, newer and better planes than the Connies but equipped with less efficient radar. The Weather Bureau flew old DC-6s which had excellent radar but would be thrown about like chips by a storm of Camille's strength. All that could be deterrnined was that Camille was small in size but extremely vicious. Dr. Simpson called the storm "a bobcat." Warnings were issued for the Florida coast from Fort Walton to St. Marks. Along the rest of the Gulf Coast—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas—small-craft danger flags began to fly.

The Empire Fishing Rodeo continued as planned at the mouth of the Mississippi River southeast of New Orleans. Fishing boats journeyed into the Gulf and reported the water to be relatively calm. The skies remained clear. On Saturday morning Earl Honer, a 40-year-old industrial engineer, decided to drive over from New Orleans to Biloxi, some 85 miles, to pick up his 52-foot schooner, which had been anchored for six days 800 yards offshore from the Broadwater Beach Marina.

The previous week Honer and three friends—Charles Dussel, a 55-year-old machine-shop foreman; Frank Murray, a 45-year-old printer; and Ronald Durr, 28, a production supervisor and Dussel's son-in-law—had sailed the schooner to Biloxi, where the diesel engine quit before they could enter the marina.

Honer had bought the schooner nearly a year earlier, when he moved to New Orleans from St. Louis, where he learned to sail on Alton Lake. The schooner was built in 1928 for use in smuggling rum from Cuba. It had a cypress hull and a 60-foot mainmast. Originally called the Al Smith, it was now named Rum Runner. Earl Honer lived on the schooner and considered it his home. He constantly worked to improve it. Honer and Charles Dussel had just finished rewiring the craft. On weekends Honer would take his friends sailing in the Gulf. "We crew for Earl whenever weather and wives permit," said Dussel.

The week before Camille was born, there had been valve trouble on the Rum Runner outside the Broadwater Beach Marina. Honer and his crew were reluctant to bring their boat into the marina under sail because there were a couple of abrupt turns to make and many fine yachts were available for ramming. "I hate to pay for anything I can't eat," Dussel said. They attempted to get a tow home from the Coast Guard on a windless evening, but they were still under sail, theoretically had power and by law did not qualify for a lift.

On Saturday morning, Aug. 16, the four men drove to Biloxi in Dussel's Volkswagen bus. Honer's big navigational chart had gone overboard on the previous cruise and he had bought new charts but had left them in the trunk of his car. When they reached the Broadwater Beach Marina, Honer purchased a strip chart of the intracoastal waterway. By 11 a.m. Saturday, they were ready to sail the Rum Runner home, with Dussel's 18-foot outboard tied to the stern as a tender. "We checked with the harbor master, but he thought the hurricane was heading into Florida," said Honer. They figured it would require 12 to 14 hours to sail back to New Orleans, and they would be well away from the breath of Camille.

They could have used a brisk following wind, but the wind was from the south-southeast and was very light, hardly enough to move the 15-ton boat. Near Gulfport, 15 miles westward along the coast toward New Orleans, a 63-foot ketch approached the Rum Runner under sail and power. The skipper of the ketch had been listening to Nash Roberts, a consultant in meteorology to oil companies when he is not being the weatherman for a New Orleans TV station. Roberts had said the hurricane would slam straight up the mouth of the Mississippi. If Roberts was correct, the Rum Runner was very nearly in the middle of the path of the approaching storm. "I'm running for the Broadwater Beach, where I'll be safe," the ketch skipper said.

The Rum Runner crew discussed the peril and decided to set a course along the stern of a freighter for a while. "We were pretty well committed to going home. We listened to our transistor radio and weren't worried," said Honer. They saw many small craft on the water. At 6 p.m. the Rum Runner passed Bay St. Louis, and by dusk it reached the mouth of the Pearl River. "We were using dead reckoning. We looked for towers and bridges, but we didn't recognize anything, and our strip chart was inadequate," Ronnie Durr said.

Slowly they realized they were much farther away from the mainland than they had thought. The Rum Runner was between La Petit Pass Island and Malheureux Island, between four and five miles out, and it was quickly getting dark. At 5:30 p.m. they had eaten the last of their sandwiches, and now they were out of beer and cigarettes. Up in the bow Ronnie Durr urged Honer to drop anchor because of the darkness. Honer replied that he would be eager to do so when they were closer to shore.

They drew near Rigolets Pass, which led into Lake Pont-chartrain, but did not try to turn in because it is a difficult channel to negotiate, with rough tides and two swing bridges. They were trying to find Chef Menteur Pass, farther on and easier. The schooner cruised slowly along in Lake Borgne, a huge, shallow body of water that is open to the Gulf on the east.

About 10 p.m. it was agreed to anchor and sleep out the night. Honer pointed the schooner into the wind. They were receiving weather reports on their radio and still were not alarmed. But as they prepared for the night, the wind was blowing more heavily. The anchor began to drag in the soft bottom of Lake Borgne. To his surprise, Honer saw the black shoreline appear only 50 feet away. The wind, now much louder, kept driving the schooner toward the shore. Soon the dinghy was caught between the Rum Runner and land, and they could hear the wood grinding. Six-foot seas dashed the schooner. Dussel and Frank Murray jumped into the shallow lake. Barefoot, the two men hauled the dinghy up a five-foot bank into a marsh thick with bulrushes. They swamped the dinghy and returned to the schooner.

It was 3 a.m. Dussel, who has a heart ailment, got into the top bunk of the Rum Runner. Murray rolled into the bottom bunk. Ronnie Durr was above, beside the mainmast, and Honer sat in the stern. As the weather became rougher, the schooner began to take water. The wind and seas kept rising. The hull had swung parallel to the shore, and the pounding of the waves opened seams between the cypress planks. Honer, Durr and Murray took turns scooping water into cans and buckets and emptying them over the side. Dussel bailed into the sink. Still the water crept up until it was. six inches above the Rum Runner's carpet.

Now they knew the Rum Runner was in worse condition than they had thought.

"It's scuttled. We can't save it," said Ronnie Durr.

Honer grabbed some clothes and a few other possessions and carried them through the slamming waves across the diminishing bank to the dinghy. Murray brought a toolbox. The four men huddled in the small boat, until 6 a.m. Sunday. Murray was wearing only trousers and a white dress shirt and complained of the cold. The wind had risen to about 35 mph. They turned on the transistor and at last learned what they had been fearing but had not admitted to themselves—Hurricane Camille was headed toward them. Plaquemines Parish, in the delta of the Mississippi mouth, was being evacuated, along with a wide area of the coast.

Water flowed over the gunwales of the schooner. The four men put on life jackets. They discussed their best chance to ride out the storm. There was land around them, but it was disappearing and soon would be entirely beneath the waves. In the faint early light they could see the Rigolets Bridge and some fishing camps in the distance; they were eight miles from home. But the wind and water tore the land into the lake, and the camps faded.

"I don't want to tell anybody what to do, but we ought to get back on that schooner," said Dussel.

They rigged lines on the Rum Runner from stay to stay and mast to mast. Waves crashed above their heads. By 3 p.m. Sunday all four men had returned to the schooner, where they sat on the lee side of the cabin, under a canvas, with their arms wrapped around the boom. The wind was so hard now that it blew them along the deck and forced them to scramble back to their scant shelter.

"I want to see dawn tomorrow. That's really what I want," Murray told them.

Durr found himself in what he called a "microworld." He worried about small holes in the canvas, wind on his neck, his grip on the boom, the positions of the others, the cramping of his muscles. He was unable to concentrate on anything outside his immediate presence. "You're on your own if you fall overboard," shouted Dussel to the group. "We can't come out to save you." But Durr was thinking that he wasn't worried about death or drowning—only about their clutches on the cabin and what would happen if his father-in-law's heart began to falter.

They dropped the life raft off the stern, lashed to the schooner so anyone washed overboard would have a chance for it. The wind and sea forced them to keep their chins against the roof of the cabin. The wind climbed into a gale. The tide thundered up. Peeping through holes in the canvas, the men could see the swamped dinghy vanishing.

It began to get very dark. Water was all around them, in their noses, eyes, ears, mouths. They buried their faces in the life vests and breathed when the wind would slack off for a moment. The wind made a high-pitched whistle. Salt bombarded their faces. At 10 p.m. Sunday night, Hurricane Camille—the most violent storm to encounter the U.S. mainland in this century—was colliding with the coast at Bay St. Louis, Miss., only a few miles from where the stricken Rum Runner lay.

As it moved ashore, Camille began to rearrange the landscape. As with every terrible storm, improbably whimsical events occurred.

The 63-foot ketch that had fled to the Broadwater Beach Marina for haven had succeeded so well that it was now on top of the marina's restaurant. The freighter the Rum Runner had briefly followed found itself beached on the highway, like a monster washed up from the depths, gleaming in the rain. The 23-foot tides carried a shrimp boat splintering into the second floor-of a home in Biloxi. The brick gates at Jefferson Davis' home, Beauvoir, were crushed. The Bienville statue at Biloxi twisted under the wind. A Presbyterian church in Biloxi was blown to rubble, except for its bell tower. Tugboats and other craft tumbled through the woods far inland.

The winds of Hurricane Camille ripped away the gauges at a reading of 200 mph. Water uprooted a cemetery, and unearthed corpses roamed the coast where once they had lived. Near Pass Christian three trunks of carbines, helmets, bulletproof vests and foreign pistols wrapped in 1961 newspapers were plucked from a secret stash and flung across the land. The brick station of the Mississippi Highway Patrol in Biloxi was destroyed as if by an explosion. The carpet in the lobby of the Broadwater Beach Hotel was flung into a tree limb.

Shops in the Vieux Carré had run out of bread and rice as the skies darkened and the rain blew in with the revised, official forecast. On Sunday afternoon windows and doors were boarded shut and furniture was piled up as barricades. There was a dance in a Greek bar on Decatur Street, and a woman played the guitar by candlelight in a bar on Ursuline Street. The residents of the Quarter thought the storm was a rather pleasant interlude—this was now Sunday night and there were no tourists.

On board the Rum Runner the four men clung to lifelines in the shrieking wind and waited for the eye of the hurricane. In the calm of the eye they hoped to retie their canvas. But the eye of Camille was very small—only eight miles wide—and did not pass over them. Instead, they were beaten unremittingly by the storm.

The Rum Runner began to list, and the water started rushing out into the lake rather than in toward where the land had been. They understood that they were now catching the backside of Camille. Their canvas blew into the water and the radio and flashlight fell over as the boat tilted violently. The men prayed. "After all these years, I guess this is the end of me," thought Dussel.

As the boat lay on its side, the cabin was two feet wide, shaped like a rail. The schooner moved beneath its passengers and then settled into something solid, fixing itself into the mud beneath the water. Daylight finally began to come. It was Monday morning. The men could see that they were within two miles of Rigolets Bridge, between Unknown Pass and Blind Bayou. Camille had blown them closer to home. Remarkably, they had so far survived the trip, and the storm was receding.

The land, though, was changed. They could see bulrushes and marsh shrubs, but there was water where there had been no water the day before. A muskrat swam up and heaved itself aboard the Rum Runner. The animal lay exhausted. Dead birds and nutria floated past. The men began to be afraid of snakes. "We might be boarded by a cottonmouth next," said Honer.

The coast was awash. Buildings were flattened as if they had been bombed. Gas mains were broken, telephones were out, a levee had flooded in New Orleans. The four men worried about their families. Though it is possible to evacuate smaller towns like Gulfport, even the Civil Defense Office has given up the impossible notion of evacuating a major American city like New Orleans, with its excessive traffic and inferior public transportation.

For more than 100 miles the coast was strewn with debris. Camille moved inland, pouring heavy rains into northern Mississippi, and then turned eastward and caused severe flooding in Kentucky and Virginia as well as disastrous rains in Alabama and Florida. Ordinarily, the winds of a hurricane rapidly lose force in friction with the land, but Camille retained its muscle until it reached nearly to Jackson. The entire Mississippi coast, from Biloxi westward, swirled under 20-foot tides. Lower Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana and the 35-mile beach along the Mississippi Gold Coast were destroyed. After the revised forecast—some 12 daylight hours before the onslaught of Camille—Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes had been almost completely emptied of people, as had the beachfront areas of Mississippi and Alabama.

From Mobile to New Orleans, shrimp, oyster, frozen crab and cat-food plants were smashed at an estimated loss of $75 million. The citrus crops were gone. The National Guard had been called to duty, and martial law was declared. Many merchants raised their prices to $1 for a loaf of bread, $5 for a block of ice. There were more than 400 fire alarms in New Orleans.

Airplanes began to appear in the sky above the Rum Runner. The four men waved their orange life jackets and signaled with a bit of broken mirror. At 2:30 p.m. Monday a seaplane dipped in and plowed across the brown water.The pilot offered to take two of them out. "We've been together, we'll stay together," Charles Dussel told him. A short while later a helicopter came low over the schooner. Looking up, the men saw a message printed on a blackboard with green chalk: DO YOU NEED HELP? They laughed. The helicopter lowered a seat and winched the four up to safety. They were flown to the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital on State Street in New Orleans and were met by attendants with wheelchairs. In the hospital they ate their first meal in nearly 48 hours—watermelon, potato salad, ham, cheese, milk and coffee. Charles Dussel looked at his watch, a Gotham model that he bought in 1935. "I guess this proves it's waterproof," he said.

They telephoned their families. Frank Murray's house had four feet of water in it, and his car had been submerged. Dussel's VW bus was 100 yards offshore in Biloxi, visible at low tide. Earl Honer's car also was ruined. But the four men had courted Camille and lived. Since 1953 the Weather Bureau has designated hurricanes with girls' names, on the theory such names are shorter and more memorable than the former longitude-latitude method. After an especially ferocious hurricane the name is retired for a generation. Betsy (1965), Beulah (1967), Audrey (1957) and Camille are on the retired list now. But Camille holds a special place. Camille had the highest tides and strongest winds ever recorded in this hemisphere, and in its eye the barometer registered 26.61. The lowest pressure ever measured was 26.06 in a hurricane in the Florida Keys in 1935.

If Camille had held its course upon leaving Cuba and had continued straight to Galveston that city would have fared better than it did when the famous Galveston hurricane struck on Sept. 8,1900. There were no weather reports from ships then and, of course, no satellites, computers or radar. But there were men who observed the events of nature. Sept. 7 had been a beautiful day, with long swells breaking on the beach; however, Dr. Isaac Cline, head of the Weather Bureau in Galveston, noted that the tide kept rising despite winds blowing against it. He warned that a storm was approaching. Many did not believe him. Within hours half the population of the town drowned. Dr. Cline's own house had been built to withstand hurricane winds, but a railway trestle crashed into the house and knocked it down. Cline and his three children clung to the wreckage of the house at 28th and Avenue P all night. They found the body of Cline's wife beneath the ruins that had supported the rest of the family.

Galveston now has a 17-foot seawall for protection. Fortunately for the inland dwellers along the Gulf Coast, much of the coastal front east of New Orleans is an island up to five miles wide, with a railroad track bed in the middle that rises some 20 to 25 feet above sea level, and a back bayou that stretches between the island and the mainland. This served as a wind-and water-break. But the Pass Christian area, where Camille chose to strike, is a low point and was all but defenseless.

The hurricane season runs from June 1 until midnight Dec. 1. Last year was unusual. There were 297 advisories issued on more than 100 disturbances—the most activity since 1953—and 13 tropical cyclones were tracked. Ten became full-grown hurricanes, the most since 1933. Hurricanes Inga, Laurie and Kara all turned loops, Inga twice. Kara crossed its own path three times, the first occasion a hurricane has been observed to do that. Inga was the longest-lived hurricane on record, lasting two weeks.

But the major event was Camille. Its losses have been placed at 258 known dead and 68 still missing. Property damage is estimated at $1.42 billion. Thousands of people have been unable to collect on their insurance because insurance companies refuse to pay on damage caused by rising water. As might be expected, insurance adjusters saw water damage where homeowners claimed damage by wind. Many thousands more people who were using Small Business Administration loans from the government in an attempt to recover from previous hurricanes now have been forced to request new loans because of Camille. The response has been less than prompt.

One of those hurt financially by Camille is Earl Honer. Although he lived aboard the Rum Runner, he had no insurance. Boats of more than 38 feet in length must carry commercial insurance, which is quite costly. The SBA will not give Honer a loan because the Rum Runner had no permanent address and failed to qualify as a home. Honer sold the salvage rights to the Rum Runner to two men who will attempt to lift the boat from the mud with tugs. But even as she lay stuck and broken in the marsh, the Rum Runner may have saved another life. A fisherman whose boat sank managed to climb aboard the schooner, where he found Earl Honer's red Mardi Gras costume and used it as a flag to summon help.

"When that schooner began to list it was not just a piece of junk," said Ronnie Durr. "It had meaning. It was saving us from death. We left pieces of our souls in it. Guys have kidded me about being foolish for getting trapped in a hurricane. But there were mitigating circumstances, and we were misinformed about the weather."

No doubt, that will happen again and again to boat-owners. The National Association of Government Employes criticized the "technical incompetence and poor planning" of top weather officials in a statement in Washington last August. A federal study group disagreed and said the warning given was "ample and timely" and prevented the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Whatever the case, it is true that little is certain about hurricanes. Seeding Hurricane Debbie with canisters of silver iodide seemed to weaken that storm last August and will be tried again this year—when various seers and mystics have predicted, with no less reasonableness than that shown by the Seminole Indians or the professional weather experts, that another hurricane of devastating proportions will roar into the Gulf Coast somewhere between Florida and Texas.

"This has been a humbling experience," Dr. Simpson said after Camille had passed. "We haven't scratched the surface in our attempts to know and tame hurricanes."

FIVE ILLUSTRATIONSPHILIP HAYS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)