Remembering a deadly hurricane, 35 years laterPhilip Hearn was a young UPI reporter stationed in Birmingham, Alabama, the night of August 17, 1969, when Hurricane Camille roared across Mississippi's Gulf Coast, sweeping away virtually everything in its course. In Mississippi, the vicious Category 5 storm killed 172 people. As it continued into Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia with its still lethal winds and flash floods, it slaughtered another 175. Apart from the cost in human lives, Camille also destroyed an estimated $8.6 billion worth of property. Even today, signs of its devastation remain. Now, 35 years later, Hearn brings readers a cinematic reconstruction of the devastating storm in Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast.
"I had no special interest [in hurricanes] at that time, except for the same interest that everyone else did in this area," Hearn tells BookPage from his office at Mississippi State University, where he is a research writer. "Later on, when I went to the University of Southern Mississippi as news director for the public relations office, I came across the oral histories of the survivors of Camille. I found some of the accounts to be riveting. After I went through them, I realized that maybe I could do a series of newspaper stories [on the storm]. I did that in 1989, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Camille. That was my starting point." In 2000, at the urging of the chairman of USM's history department, Hearn began his formal work on the book.
To manage the surfeit of eyewitness stories, Hearn focused on the accounts of 15 survivors. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, particularly in times of excitement and stress. But Hearn says he found the survivors' stories basically consistent and in accord with the news reports of the disaster. "They were the people," he explains, "who had to struggle mightily for their own lives and who saw family and friends perish all around them." One man, who had sought refuge in a church with his family, lost his wife, 11 of his children and one grandchild that terrible night. Another victim heard the double-doors of his house snap open and turned to see his new Oldsmobile floating in. An apartment building the inhabitants thought was storm-proof was quickly shredded to the foundation.
Although racial tensions were still running high in Mississippi in the late '60s, there is no mention of them in the book. "I did not run into any unusual situation that involved the races," says Hearn. "I think pretty much everyone who lived along that area [where the storm came ashore] was in the same boat. The devastation was so complete. As a matter of fact, it seemed like the people really rallied around one another."There's always a problem in sustaining drama with an event that's brief and whose outcome is already known. But Hearn handles it deftly by holding the ravages of Camille at bay while he gives a brief history of hurricanes, describes how this particular one formed and then follows its killing winds as they roar into the Gulf, sweep over the barrier islands and collide catastrophically with the coast. He demonstrates time and again that he still has a reporter's eye for precise detail, as in this passage: "The atomic-bomb effect of Camille's 200-miles-per-hour wind gusts and 25-foot storm surge destroyed 100 years of growth and progress along the Mississippi coast in just three hours. Ancient oak trees were uprooted and washed into the mix with piers, signs, vehicles, boats, power poles, roofs, floors, walls, furniture, appliances, and other scattered residue of civilization. A variety of vessels, including large barges, were lifted from the Gulf and deposited on the beach as sand washed over the seawall, covering or crumbling large portions of U. S. Highway 90."While Hearn's descriptions of the storm's aftermath are less dramatic, they are no less poignant. We learn that the man who lost most of his family coped with his grief by helping rescue workers recover their bodies and then tenderly laying them out side by side. "We've got to go on living," Hearn quotes him as saying. "You can't run away from it." Thousands of animals perished in the storm, and hundreds of domesticated ones were killed deliberately "because no facilities or food existed for their care." In the weeks and months that followed, Hearn reports, many of the survivors suffered severe emotional problems. One woman stepped out of her trailer, surveyed the destruction and shot herself. A psychiatrist estimated that divorces in the area "probably quadrupled" after Camille.
In spite of the formidable research skills and narrative flair he brought to the book, Hearn says that any credit for the book's impact lies elsewhere. "These people told the story with their personal accounts. I just hoped I could blend it all together." That he has done.