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Category 5

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

Judith A. Howard

Publication Year: 2010

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.” —Moondance.org 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.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page and Copyright

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pp. vii-ix

The 1960s was a long decade of assassinations, race riots, environmental disasters, and war, all beamed directly into American living rooms. The Cold War loomed in the shadows, threatening at any moment to flare into a nuclear Armageddon. The Supreme Court was transforming race relations and gender...

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pp. x

We are grateful to the many dozens of people—community leaders, librarians, professional colleagues, students, military men, and everyday citizens in the communities we visited—who generously took the time to talk with us and to point us in the direction of various resources. We are especially indebted to those survivors of Camille and their family members who...


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pp. xi

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1. Grim News

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pp. 1-11

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...

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2. Of Love and Life

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pp. 12-22

No disaster—indeed, no human event—is ever written on a blank slate. Collective knowledge, the local culture, and the consequences of prior social decisions and indecisions all combine to affect the human toll when nature goes on a rampage. When their plans and expectations go awry, leaders, followers, those who would prefer to be left alone, and outsiders...

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3. Bayou Country

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pp. 23-32

Cultural geography is never disconnected from physical geography, and that’s especially true for Louisiana. Roughly one-sixth of the Pelican State’s total area—nearly eight thousand square miles—is covered by water, with most of this submerged land lying in the southern parishes. The state’s rainfall averages sixty-four inches a year, vying for the highest in the continental...

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4. The Birdsfoot Peninsula

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pp. 33-51

Louisiana has been graced with a passel of colorfully corrupt politicians, including the likes of former governor and U.S. senator Huey Long, who was assassinated in the extravagant state capitol building he built; the recent governor Edwin Edwards, who as of this writing is serving a ten-year term in federal prison for bribery and racketeering; and three consecutive...

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5. Storm Warnings

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pp. 52-71

On August 5, 1969, the National Hurricane Center in Miami received a stack of fuzzy weather satellite photographs from the national headquarters of its parent, the Weather Service in Washington, and they landed on the desk of Dr. Robert H. Simpson, the NHC’s new director. A few years later, Simpson would collaborate with Herbert Saf‹r to create what...

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6. On the Coast

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pp. 72-84

That Saturday morning was a good day for ‹shing, and Luke Petrovich was offshore in his boat when he noticed an unusually large number of helicopters shuttling to and from the oil platforms. A fellow parish commissioner raised him on the radio. The latest news: a hurricane watch had been declared...

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7. Exodus

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pp. 85-100

Ben Duckworth pulled the pillow around his ears. All he wanted to do was sleep. Who the hell was hammering on a Sunday morning? The phone rang in the front room, and he heard Buddy pick it up. A terse muf›ed conversation, then the click of the receiver. Ben tossed off his sheet, yanked on...

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8. Troubled Waters

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pp. 101-116

At daybreak on Sunday, August 17, 1969, some thirty freighters and tankers were already queued up outside the offshore sandbars, waiting their turns to enter the Mississippi River’s two deep-water passes. Dozens of additional ships would arrive throughout the day as their masters sped full ahead....

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9. Angry Seas

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pp. 117-129

The four sailors on the Rum Runner had little choice but to bunk down early. There wasn’t enough power to run the lights for very long, and in any case none of them were much in the mood for sitting around talking. Rather than argue further about who was responsible for the navigational blunder that had stranded them short of the pass, they knew what every other...

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10. Dawn

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pp. 130-142

Around 4:30 a.m., with the wind diminished to a stiff breeze, Ben saw strange flashes of light below him. He thought he was dreaming before he realized it was a group of men who wielded ›ashlights, beckoning him down from the tree. His nearly naked body was peppered with cuts and bruises, one leg...

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11. Rubble

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pp. 143-158

Jackson M. Balch, manager of the Mississippi Test Facility (now the John C. Stennis Space Center), hugged his two young sons and led them down the hall. Although he’d primed himself mentally to ‹nd damage downstairs, the actual sight still astounded him. Most of the staircase was ripped away, and...

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12. Deluge

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pp. 159-175

A hurricane ceases to be a hurricane when its sustained winds drop below seventy-four miles per hour, at which time it is downgraded to a tropical storm. When the winds decline further to under thirty-nine miles per hour, the storm is reclassi‹ed as a tropical depression and is stripped of its name. Shortly...

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13. A County Divided

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pp. 176-193

Filtering through the somber clouds of the east-drifting storm, the morning sun cast a blue-gray pall over the James River valley. Cliff Wood, vice chairman of the county’s board of supervisors but foremost a farmer, stepped out his front door and checked his rain gauge. His spread had gotten a hefty soaking...

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14. Reconnecting

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pp. 194-210

Ahurricane, in and of itself, may or may not be a disaster. The same goes for avalanches, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, or blizzards. Mother Nature often unleashes violence that does not undermine society (a ›ash ›ood in an uninhabited canyon, for instance, or a typhoon over the ocean). Even...

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15. Outsiders

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pp. 211-225

Initiated more than a century earlier by the condescending meddling of the Northern abolitionists, then exacerbated by the hated carpetbaggers, a mistrust of outsiders had been passed down from generation to generation throughout the rural South. A shadow of suspicion is evident even in the...

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16. A Knotty Legacy

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pp. 226-236

How many died? Any attempt to determine the exact death toll of a major disaster is fraught with dif‹culties. Some of the bodies are never found. Hapless travelers just passing through may succumb without loved ones tying their disappearance to the disaster. Further complicating matters is the cause of death...

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pp. 237-248

A hundred miles north of Camille’s landfall, ten-year-old evacuee Richard Rose awoke to a brilliant Monday morning, the air sweet with Orleans jasmine. As he dashed outside to meet the neighborhood kids, and his eighteen-year-old brother Don headed to Gulfport to check on their dad, the rest of the family stewed indoors in a brew of mounting worry. Late...


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pp. 249-252

Notes on Sources

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pp. 253-260


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pp. 261-270


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pp. 271-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025879
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472032402

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2010