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Category 5: The Story of Camille, Lessons Unlearned from America's Most Violent Hurricane

Category 5: The Story of Camille, Lessons Unlearned from America's Most Violent Hurricane

by Judith A. Howard, Ernest Zebrowski Jr.

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The epic story of the real victims of a perfect storm—overwhelmingly the poor—left behind in the aftermath of a deadly hurricane

“A riveting new book.”

Tallahassee Democrat

“Not simply an historical account of a storm thirty-seven years ago but a living, breathing entity brimming with the modern-day reality that


The epic story of the real victims of a perfect storm—overwhelmingly the poor—left behind in the aftermath of a deadly hurricane

“A riveting new book.”

Tallahassee Democrat

“Not simply an historical account of a storm thirty-seven years ago but a living, breathing entity brimming with the modern-day reality that, yes, it can happen again.”

American Meteorological Society Bulletin

"Fascinating, easy-to-read, yet informative.”

Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Almost like sitting in front of the television watching the events unfold. A page-turner from the very first page.”

Ruston Morning Paper


“There is much we can all learn from this relevant and highly engaging chronicle.”

Biloxi Sun Herald

“A must-read for anyone who wants to take an emotional stroll through the rubble of these Gulf Coast fishing communities and learn what happened.”

Apalachicola Times

“Should be required reading for anyone living in the path of these terrible storms.”


As the unsettled social and political weather of summer 1969 played itself out amid the heat of antiwar marches and the battle for civil rights, three regions of the rural South were devastated by the horrifying force of Category 5 Hurricane Camille.

Camille’s nearly 200 mile per hour winds and 28-foot storm surge swept away thousands of homes and businesses along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. Twenty-four oceangoing ships sank or were beached; six offshore drilling platforms collapsed; 198 people drowned. Two days later, Camille dropped 108 billion tons of moisture drawn from the Gulf onto the rural communities of Nelson County, Virginia—nearly three feet of rain in 24 hours. Mountainsides were washed away; quiet brooks became raging torrents; homes and whole communities were simply washed off the face of the earth.

In this gripping account, Ernest Zebrowski and Judith Howard tell the heroic story of America’s forgotten rural underclass coping with immense adversity and inconceivable tragedy.

Category 5 shows, through the riveting stories of Camille’s victims and survivors, the disproportionate impact of natural disasters on the nation’s poorest communities. It is, ultimately, a story of the lessons learned—and, in some cases, tragically unlearned—from that storm: hard lessons that were driven home once again in the awful wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Ernest Zebrowski is founder of the doctoral program in science and math education at Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Professor of Physics at Pennsylvania State University’s Pennsylvania College of Technology. His previous books include Perils of a Restless Planet: Scientific Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Judith Howard earned her Ph.D. in clinical social work from UCLA, and writes a regular political column for the Ruston, Louisiana, Morning Paper.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Camille, which swept through coastal Mississippi and Louisiana in August 1969, was the storm that inspired the five-level scale currently used to predict the damage inflicted by hurricanes, and remains the only Category 5 storm-the strongest-to make landfall in modern American history. Zebrowski and Howard ground the storm's story in personal narratives, opening with the tale of a couple who fear their son has been killed when the storm hits the Mississippi coast. They interview other survivors in the region and up in Virginia, where Camille collided with another storm system, tracking the destruction and the confused response of local authorities. Zebrowski, a physicist, and Howard, a political columnist for a northern Louisiana newspaper, also focus on the role of Southern racial politics in shaping the civic response, particularly in one remote Louisiana parish. It's a serviceable recounting, with a thin layer of analysis discussing how Camille influenced the eventual creation of FEMA. Brief reference is made to Hurricane Katrina, but at this early stage, the authors can't say more than that authorities appear not to have learned from the earlier storm's effects. Photos, maps. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

University of Michigan Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2005 Ernest Zebrowski and Judith A. Howard
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11525-9

Chapter One


Monday, August 18, 1969

Josephine Duckworth paced in the living room of her upscale home in Jackson, Mississippi. The yard was littered with tree limbs, mangled porch furniture, and other debris that had originated who knew where, but it wasn't that mess that distressed her. Her frantic thoughts were on Ben, her twenty-three-year-old son. She hadn't heard from him since six o'clock the previous evening.

Born in Alabama, Josephine fit every positive stereotype anyone might have of a classic southern belle. Blonde, petite, and ever the lady, invariably dressed as if expecting to be photographed for posterity, she was loved by all who knew her. No new acquaintance could fail to be captivated by her charm, her magnetic smile, and her lilting southern accent. Ben had often joked, both to his friends and teasingly to his mother directly, that she was the only woman in the world who could turn her birthplace, Troy, into a three-syllable word.

She'd spent a sleepless Sunday night pacing, praying, and dialing one phone number after another. She'd left messages for the governor and the adjutant general that her son and two dozen others had stayed at the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian. Now, Monday morning, the newscasts still reported nothing about Camille's impact on the coast. In fact, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, 140 miles to the south, had been cut off from all communication.

Her husband, Hubert, shut the front door behind him and peeled off his dripping raincoat. The storm had tapered to a drizzle, and he'd just confirmed that there was no serious damage in their own neighborhood. He needed to get to his office. There would surely be a lot to do after this one.

A vice president of Borden Inc., Hubert Duckworth was responsible for all of the company's operations in the state of Mississippi. And, indeed, he would soon learn that the hurricane had created a whole host of problems for his managers and staff-including damage to production facilities, statewide complications in the distribution of Borden's dairy products, and devastating losses of dairy herds in the southern counties. In fact, bad news about additional problems would continue to arrive for weeks to come. Josephine, however, was not interested in Borden at the moment. She reminded Hubert, with no mistake in her voice, that while he'd been sleeping through the night she had been wide awake and doing all of the worrying for the both of them. She was not about to let him leave the house until they heard from Ben.

Although Hubert was not one to show much emotion (in Josephine's words, he wasn't a "folksy" kind of fellow), he tried his best to console her. They had raised a very smart son, he assured her. Certainly Ben was okay. The problem, he explained, was simply that hurricanes blow down trees and that phone lines are no match for falling trees.

Josephine tried the phone again only to get another busy signal. Not a single telephone in Harrison or Hancock County remained active, and the trunk lines were clogged with thousands of futile attempts to get through. She turned up the volume on the television, but the local newscasters still babbled about the minor damage in Jackson while only alluding to unconfirmed reports of "major damage" on the coast. In her mind, Josephine rolled over and again the reasons why Ben had stayed behind in the face of the mandatory evacuation order. Not just the reasons he'd told her on the phone yesterday evening but the other possible reasons as well.

Hubert, meanwhile, dialed Robert Pendleton, a private investigator who had done various jobs for Borden over the years. When that brief conversation ended, Hubert assured Josephine that they'd know something in a couple of hours. Pendleton's New Orleans office had already chartered a helicopter, and some of his boys were fixin' to take off for an aerial inspection. Pendleton would tell them to check out the condition of the Richelieu, and as soon as they did, he'd phone the Duckworths with the news.

The call came around noon. Hubert snatched up the receiver, listened, then broke into a grin. Josephine sank into the sofa and sighed in relief, clutching her chest. The flyboys had radioed their report, and the Richelieu Apartments had stood up just fine. Although there was terrible devastation nearby, Ben was surely safe. The Duckworths hugged, then went to the kitchen to stir up brunch while waiting to hear from Ben directly. Hubert began thinking about how he would prioritize his responsibilities at the office in the aftermath of the disaster.

The report from the helicopter, however, turned out to be a cruel mistake. So many landmarks in Pass Christian had been flattened that the pilot and observers had mistaken another structure farther inland-it was never clear which one-for the Richelieu Apartments building. In fact, so little physical evidence of the Richelieu had survived that it was impossible to pinpoint the former site of that place from the air. Later that afternoon, Pendleton phoned Hubert back with the bad news. He offered the Duckworths his prayers and told them that there might be something on the CBS Evening News.

This was a time, mid-1969, of widespread distrust of public officials. The peace and civil rights activists had split the nation, the women's movement was gaining steam, and President Nixon's inconsistent public statements about the war in Vietnam had disillusioned so many that a widely distributed poster posed the question in banner lettering under his photograph, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" In that atmosphere of discontent, Walter Cronkite, the fatherly anchor of the CBS Evening News, held his team of reporters and writers to impeccable standards of journalistic veracity. A public opinion poll actually identified Cronkite as "the most trusted man in America."

That evening, August 18, 1969, Cronkite stared somberly into the camera and told the nation of the terrible destruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast by a hurricane named Camille. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) had reported winds of 172 miles per hour that gusted to over 200, making Camille the most intense hurricane to strike the U.S. mainland in the nation's history. Human tragedy bordered on the unspeakable. As the screen switched to aerial footage of the devastation, Cronkite commented, "This is the former site of the Richelieu Apartments, where twenty-three people laughed in the face of death, and twenty-three people died."

The Duckworths were devastated.

Cronkite went on, but they heard little more. As Hubert tried to be stoic in accepting the news, Josephine exploded in tears. She bargained with God, praying that this latest information was just another mistake. She vowed that she would not abandon hope until they had indisputable firsthand confirmation of Ben's death. After all, they'd lived on the coast near Biloxi until Ben was in eleventh grade, so the boy certainly knew about tropical storms and how serious they could be. Surely, of all people, their son wouldn't have been foolish enough to attend a "hurricane party"! But through the rest of the evening and through the night, no calls came with any further news.

The following morning, as always, Hubert donned a white shirt and a tie. His first stop was the bank, where he withdrew five hundred dollars. The local funeral director had advised him to carry the cash on his trip to Pass Christian, because it might be needed to assure that Ben's body was transported to Jackson quickly and with due care. They would have an open-casket viewing if possible, but that would depend on the condition of Ben's corpse when it arrived. Josephine, meanwhile, remained at home, waiting and praying for the phone call from Ben that, in her mind, could possibly come at any minute.

After picking up one of Ben's friends, Charles Edward Barranco, Hubert drove to the home of his daughter, Marian. His son-in-law, Bill-the Reverend Dr. Bill Duncan, a Baptist minister-was waiting at the driveway. He asked Hubert to open his trunk so they could load a few things: a couple of bow saws, an axe, a coil of rope, a come-along, a box of miscellaneous tools, work gloves, flashlights, jugs of water, a full gas can, and blankets. Marian scampered up with a bag of sandwiches and, teary eyed, kissed them. Hubert hadn't eaten a sandwich in years-he just wasn't a sandwich kind of person-but he thanked his daughter for her thoughtfulness. It hadn't occurred to him that food and water might be a problem or that they might need to cut their way through obstructions to get to the site of Ben's apartment.

They headed south on two-lane Highway 49. The road had already been cleared of debris, and the trio made the first eighty miles without incident. Approaching Hattiesburg, however, they began to see evidence of wind damage. Not just the fallen branches and scattered trash they had in Jackson but garage roofs lifted, trees uprooted, cars crushed, and farm outbuildings flattened. South of Hattiesburg, with another seventy miles to go, they were stopped at a roadblock manned by National Guard troops. Just a short time earlier, at 11:37 that morning, the governor had declared martial law for the coastal counties.

A young corporal with a rifle slung over his shoulder asked Hubert for his destination. "Pass Christian," he answered.

The young man shook his head. "You can't go there, sir. The hurricane wiped out the roads."

"Did it wipe out 49?"

"No, sir, but it sure did a big-time job on Highway 90. Our orders are to not let anyone through to the coast. What's your business?"

Hubert took a deep breath. "My business, young man, is that my son was just killed there. We're going there to get his body."

The corporal's face ran pale. "I'm sorry, sir ...," he stammered. "I can't guarantee that you'll get through. But if you want to try, I sure won't be the one to stop you." He waved them through the roadblock.

The opportunity to speed down an open road was short. After a few miles, they came up behind an incongruously fully loaded Budweiser beer truck. They followed it almost to Gulfport, where it turned east toward Biloxi. Although Hubert, Bill, and Charles Edward didn't know it then, all of those cases of cans labeled as brew were actually filled with water destined for survivors and relief workers. Hubert turned right onto Pass Road. This was the back way into Pass Christian, and he knew it well.

The devastation there was phenomenal, with not a single structure undamaged. They were stopped every couple of blocks by deputies or National Guard troops. The din of chainsaws muddled all attempts at communicating, and Hubert explained his mission over and again. With the few remaining blocks impassable to vehicles, they got out and walked. Despite the August heat, Hubert still wore his tie, his collar still buttoned. It never occurred to him to do otherwise.

Ahead and to the south lay a wasteland, with not a wall left standing within three blocks of the Gulf. They climbed over and through the rubble to the site of the Richelieu, which they could identify only by its swimming pool. Truncated pipes jutted eerily from the foundation slabs; Camille had even claimed the toilets and bathtubs those pipes had supplied. Hubert wandered through the devastation in a semi-stupor, remembering the smiling photographs of Ben, Josephine, and their young granddaughter snapped at this very spot last Christmas. Now, it seemed as if those memories had been part of another world. He prodded himself into focusing on his current mission: he needed to find the morgue and have Ben's body shipped home. Considering the number of lives the storm had claimed in this little town, surely the local authorities had set up a temporary morgue somewhere close.

Hubert noticed a young man in olive drab tramping around nearby, also shaking his head in solemn disbelief. Hubert squinted; the fellow looked familiar. In fact, he was an acquaintance of Ben's, Mike Gannon. It didn't immediately register with Hubert that this fellow had also been living at the Richelieu. He asked Mike if he knew where Ben might have been taken.

"Yes, Mr. Duckworth," Mike replied. "I saw them carry Ben into the high school yesterday morning along with a lot of others. Do you know where that is?"

Hubert nodded and swallowed as he straightened his tie. Southern gentlemen don't cry-at least not in public.

Thirty-three-year-old Mary Ann Gerlach gained near-instant national fame with her remarkable survival story, which she enhanced with additional details each time she was interviewed by yet another reporter. She and her sixth husband, Frederick (or "Fritz," as most people knew him), had lived at the Richelieu. Both had worked night shifts the evening before the hurricane, she as a cocktail waitress and he as a Seabee in the navy. Mary Ann told reporters:

The first thing that popped in my mind was party time! We all got together and decided we were going to have a hurricane party on the third floor. I went out and got all kinds of stuff to fix, you know, sandwiches and hors d'oeuvres and got a bunch of stuff to drink. Well, all the Civil Defense people had come up trying to get us out, and the manager and his wife kept telling us, "No need to go, it's ridiculous, just stay here."

Mary Ann and Fritz never did join the group on the third floor. They decided to nap first and were awakened around 10:00 p.m. by thumping sounds from below. The electricity was out by then, and they ventured into the living room by flashlight. To their horror, the Gulf of Mexico was one-third of the way up their second-story picture window, some twenty feet above normal sea level. As they dashed back to their bedroom, the front window imploded, the sea rushed in, and the building shuddered. Years earlier as a new enlistee, Fritz had talked a buddy into passing his swimming test for him, and now that ruse came back to haunt him; he couldn't swim a lick. With waist-deep water swirling around them and their furniture floating, Mary Ann blew up an air mattress she kept for the swimming pool and gave it to Fritz.

Moments later, the rear window shattered and she swam out with the current-smack into a maze of electrical wires. The sea, surging in through the front and out the rear of the apartment, swept Fritz out behind her. She disentangled herself and pushed off from the doomed building. "My legs," she explained, "were real strong, you know, from doing cocktail waitress work for so long." Meanwhile, Fritz drowned. Several days later, his body was found tangled in a tree several miles inland, mangled and decomposed.

Some six hours later, unable to walk and wearing only tattered shorts and the ragged remnants of a short-sleeved sweatshirt, Mary Ann sat shivering in the mud into the morning. She spied a man tramping through the debris and called to him for help. He asked if she had seen his wife. "No, I haven't seen anyone alive but you," she replied. The man stumbled away in a trance, repeating his wife's name over and over.

She huddled, still shivering, for more than an hour before the next person came along, a young man she recognized as a local post office clerk. She shouted to him. The postal clerk and two other men carried Mary Ann to the white high school, where the shop area was being converted to a temporary morgue and most of the rest of the building was sheltering survivors. A few hours later, several National Guard troops in a LARC transferred her to the Miramar Nursing Home. There, as her wounds were being tended, Mary Ann explained to the nurses that she was the sole survivor of the Richelieu Apartments.

The word quickly got out to the reporters, and as journalists swarmed in to interview her over and again, Mary Ann got better and better at remembering various details of her extraordinary survival story. Nationwide, hundreds of broadcasts and newspapers reported that Mary Ann Gerlach had been the sole survivor out of two dozen revelers at a "hurricane party" in the ill-fated apartment building.

In truth, at least eight others had survived the destruction of the Richelieu. Several of them had heroic motives for remaining there that terrible night, and all suffered consequences as agonizing as Mary Ann's harrowing experience. Camille's "hurricane party," however, has become embedded in American folklore, and perhaps some good has come from that. Wittingly or not, Mary Ann Gerlach raised the consciousness of millions of Americans that hurricanes are not auspicious occasions for partying.


Excerpted from CATEGORY 5 by ERNEST ZEBROWSKI JUDITH A. HOWARD Copyright © 2005 by Ernest Zebrowski and Judith A. Howard. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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