Historian remembers Hurricane Camille recovery
It’s been 41 years since Hurricane Camille slammed the Mississippi coast, killed more than 130 people, and earned the title of most powerful storm ever to hit the U.S. mainland.
In a collection of soon-to-be published lectures about the killer storm entitled “Camille 1969: Histories of a Hurricane,” USC history professor Mark Smith details the sensory experience of hurricanes and recounts the political intrigue of 1969 that attempted to mix school desegregation with hurricane relief efforts. He then raises important questions about post-hurricane recovery that anyone who lives in the potential pathway of future hurricanes would do well to consider.
“I’m known as an historian of the antebellum South and of sensory history, so it might seem odd for me to be writing about a 20th-century event, albeit one that deeply affected the South,” Smith said. “But my work on an NSF-funded study of post-Katrina recovery with other USC researchers has revealed many similarities with Hurricane Camille. The prospect of another storm of that magnitude is always just one hurricane season away.”
Camille hit the Gulf coast Aug. 17, 1969, as a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 170 miles per hour, 200-plus mph gusts, and a storm surge of 20-25 feet. For those who lived through the storm, experiencing such a force of nature involved far more than merely seeing its destructive power, Smith said.
“People saw the destructive aftermath the next day—the storm hit during the night—and they heard it, too—the roar of the wind and of houses and other buildings being torn apart,” Smith said. “The next day brought the sound of chainsaws clearing debris. Camille survivors say the buzz of chainsaws became a constant background noise for weeks and weeks afterwards.
“Electricity was gone and water wasn’t readily available, so, as you can imagine, you start smelling yourself after a few days along with the odor of decomposing food.”
The sense of taste was affected, too, as Camille survivors ate canned “emergency” food, like Spam, that they might not have had to eat before.
“Consider the sense of touch and the protocols of segregation that were prevalent then—no physical touch between whites and blacks. That taboo had to be suspended during the emergency as black men sometimes carried white women to safety.
“Prohibiting such touch was still in full force just hours before the hurricane hit, though. There are photos of segregated buses that were evacuating whites and blacks separately as Camille bore down on the Mississippi coast.”
In his second lecture, Smith details the creative splicing of hurricane relief with federal policymaking—a plan that revealed how politics can mingle with disaster relief.
“In a move that showed a great deal of imagination for federal bureaucrats, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare [now Health and Human Services] attempted to tie federal aid for recovery to the desegregation of Mississippi schools,” Smith said. “But there was a wrinkle: President Nixon wanted to institute a new anti-ballistic missile system, and Mississippi Sen. John Stennis said he would block that unless the federal government backed off in its effort to link recovery aid with school desegregation.”
Stennis’ ultimatum delayed his state’s school desegregation only for a few months; Mississippi ultimately yielded to federal desegregation laws.
Recovery and rebuilding after Camille followed the same slow trajectory witnessed after Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans in 2005. As part of its Southern campaign strategy, the Nixon administration funneled federal aid to a governors’ council, which largely benefited the business community’s rebuilding, Smith said. As is the case after many natural disasters, the pace and evenness of recovery after Camille revealed societal gaps between rich and poor.
“After a storm of such magnitude, there are inevitable questions: Who gets to recover? Who gets to recover faster? And why?” Smith said. “Is recovery a restoration to what you had before? Do you end up with a more equitable and just society or do you end up with the status quo—haves and have nots?”
Smith’s lecture series, delivered earlier this year at Mercer University, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in 2011.