FROM THE VAULT: Hurricane Camille devastates the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Before Katrina, Hurricane Camille was the worst storm most Mississippians could remember.
Published: Jul. 11, 2023 at 2:41 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - On the afternoon of Sunday, August 17, 1969, it was becoming clear that Hurricane Camille would be a major storm. WLBT sent a three-man crew to the coast to report on what they saw and heard. This was before satellite hookups and long before the internet, so one of the men had to drive their film back to Jackson each night to get it on the air.

On Monday morning, they emerged from the civil-defense headquarters in Gulfport and witnessed destruction the likes of which they had never seen. It was caused by only the second Category-5 hurricane to hit the U.S. in recorded history, with winds of more than 200 miles per hour.

On Monday night, WLBT aired an hour-long special report at 6:30 called “The Path of Camille.” Reporter Jack Hill interviewed Gulfport Mayor Phil Shaw, who’d been on the job for just seven weeks.

“Of course we’re going to rebuild Gulfport,” the new mayor told WLBT. “They rebuilt San Francisco and they rebuilt Chicago after the fire. It will take time. We’ve had a tremendous amount of damage on the beachfront and the port. We’re working now to get that straightened out. We’ve got to get these ships out that were sunk. We’ve got to unload them and move them out.”

Phil Shaw, mayor of Gulfport in 1969
Phil Shaw, mayor of Gulfport in 1969(WLBT)

WLBT’s general manager at the time, Bob McRaney, was president of the Mississippi Broadcasters Association and organized a telethon to air the following weekend on radio and television stations across the state. The 12-hour program was called “We Care Sunday,” and it aired live from the coliseum in Jackson.

Woodie Assaf and Bob Hope during "We Care Sunday" telecast in 1969
Woodie Assaf and Bob Hope during "We Care Sunday" telecast in 1969(WLBT)

Longtime WLBT weatherman Woodie Assaf persuaded Bob Hope to come to Jackson to headline the event. While the two were on stage, they took a phone call from President Richard Nixon, who pledged a thousand dollars. In all, some two-million dollars was raised.

A couple of months later, President Nixon came to Mississippi himself to see the devastation on the coast. WLBT and other stations in the state carried his visit live from Gulfport.

Ray Butterfield (WLOX), Mark Ledbetter (WLBT), Keith Glatzer (WDAM), Bert Case (WJTV)
Ray Butterfield (WLOX), Mark Ledbetter (WLBT), Keith Glatzer (WDAM), Bert Case (WJTV)(Miss. Dept. of Archives & History)

“As the plane landed, and as we stepped on the platform and looked at this huge crowd,” President Nixon said, “I realized that whatever had happened to Mississippi from the standpoint of physical destruction, the spirit of the people of Mississippi is still high, and it will continue to be high.”

President Richard Nixon in Gulfport in 1969 (that's longtime Congressman G.V. "Sonny"...
President Richard Nixon in Gulfport in 1969 (that's longtime Congressman G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery over his left shoulder)(Miss. Dept. of Archives & Hisotry)

Cleanup and recovery continued along the Gulf Coast, where well over a hundred deaths were attributed to the storm. WLBT maintained a daily presence on the coast for weeks.

For the next 36 years, Camille was the benchmark — the worst and most destructive storm that anyone in Mississippi could remember. That all changed with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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