Galveston now has a 17-foot seawall for protection. Fortunately for the inland dwellers along the Gulf Coast, much of the coastal front east of New Orleans is an island up to five miles wide, with a railroad track bed in the middle that rises some 20 to 25 feet above sea level, and a back bayou that stretches between the island and the mainland. This served as a wind-and water-break. But the Pass Christian area, where Camille chose to strike, is a low point and was all but defenseless.
The hurricane season runs from June 1 until midnight Dec. 1. Last year was unusual. There were 297 advisories issued on more than 100 disturbances—the most activity since 1953—and 13 tropical cyclones were tracked. Ten became full-grown hurricanes, the most since 1933. Hurricanes Inga, Laurie and Kara all turned loops, Inga twice. Kara crossed its own path three times, the first occasion a hurricane has been observed to do that. Inga was the longest-lived hurricane on record, lasting two weeks.
But the major event was Camille. Its losses have been placed at 258 known dead and 68 still missing. Property damage is estimated at $1.42 billion. Thousands of people have been unable to collect on their insurance because insurance companies refuse to pay on damage caused by rising water. As might be expected, insurance adjusters saw water damage where homeowners claimed damage by wind. Many thousands more people who were using Small Business Administration loans from the government in an attempt to recover from previous hurricanes now have been forced to request new loans because of Camille. The response has been less than prompt.
One of those hurt financially by Camille is Earl Honer. Although he lived aboard the Rum Runner, he had no insurance. Boats of more than 38 feet in length must carry commercial insurance, which is quite costly. The SBA will not give Honer a loan because the Rum Runner had no permanent address and failed to qualify as a home. Honer sold the salvage rights to the Rum Runner to two men who will attempt to lift the boat from the mud with tugs. But even as she lay stuck and broken in the marsh, the Rum Runner may have saved another life. A fisherman whose boat sank managed to climb aboard the schooner, where he found Earl Honer's red Mardi Gras costume and used it as a flag to summon help.
"When that schooner began to list it was not just a piece of junk," said Ronnie Durr. "It had meaning. It was saving us from death. We left pieces of our souls in it. Guys have kidded me about being foolish for getting trapped in a hurricane. But there were mitigating circumstances, and we were misinformed about the weather."
No doubt, that will happen again and again to boat-owners. The National Association of Government Employes criticized the "technical incompetence and poor planning" of top weather officials in a statement in Washington last August. A federal study group disagreed and said the warning given was "ample and timely" and prevented the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Whatever the case, it is true that little is certain about hurricanes. Seeding Hurricane Debbie with canisters of silver iodide seemed to weaken that storm last August and will be tried again this year—when various seers and mystics have predicted, with no less reasonableness than that shown by the Seminole Indians or the professional weather experts, that another hurricane of devastating proportions will roar into the Gulf Coast somewhere between Florida and Texas.
"This has been a humbling experience," Dr. Simpson said after Camille had passed. "We haven't scratched the surface in our attempts to know and tame hurricanes."