JACKSON, Miss. — Veteran TV reporter Bert Case remembers clearly the pop and crash of exploding glass in Biloxi’s Buena Vista hotel the night Hurricane Camille ransacked the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969.
“You could hear windows going off. It sounded like mortars,” said Case, who covered Camille for the CBS affiliate in Jackson, phoning in reports until the storm cut off phone lines.
Case rode out the Category 5 killer in the lobby of the hotel directly on Biloxi’s manmade beach. Below him, crashing waves washed through the lower floors and washed away TV cameras pointed at the angry gulf.
Camille was the most powerful and devastating hurricane to hit Mississippi and was one of only three Category 5 hurricanes to strike the U.S. mainland since 1900.
On Wednesday, as a Category 4 Hurricane Ivan kicked up white-top waves and started pelting the coast with rain, Case said he was surprised by the thousands of people who chose to ignore evacuation warnings, particularly in low-lying areas prone to flooding.
200-mph winds arrive at night
Camille struck the night of Aug. 17, 1969, with winds of over 200 mph that flattened buildings and tossed boats across a beachside highway. The tide surged to 24 feet, sending water over rooftops.
In Mississippi alone, 131 people were killed and 41 were left missing. An additional 216 were killed as Camille moved through Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. More than 100 of the deaths were caused by flooding in Virginia.
Carrolyn Denning, 74, was working as a nurse at Gulfport Memorial Hospital the night Camille came ashore over Pass Christian about 10 miles to the west.
“We could hear the windows explode, and the hospital weaved a bit and we had to wade through water in the intensive care unit,” Denning recalled.
‘The most atrocious thing’
To avoid Ivan, Denning fled her mobile home with her dog, Lassie, and went several miles inland to a hotel in Gulfport. Denning said she would have traveled farther north but was afraid to get too far from the doctor who has been treating her since a recent heart attack.
She said called Camille “the most atrocious thing that I have ever seen.”
“I don’t know how anyone lived through it,” she said, recalling the badly injured who survived the storm.
“You had to remember that these were people, even though some of it was pretty gory,” Denning said.
In Pass Christian, 23 people died at the Richelieu Manor Apartments, a three-story, U-shaped building near the beach. Thirteen of 16 family members were killed as they sought shelter at the city’s Trinity Episcopal Church.
In his new book, “Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast,” author Phil D. Hearn wrote that 66-year-old carpenter Fred DeMetz “saw the bodies of the Williams family mingle with several freshly buried coffins, airtight boxes, which washed up out of their graves under the intense pressure of the rolling waves.”
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