In the Vieux Carré two men in sneakers padded down the stairs from the black iron balcony of their apartment above an art gallery on the Rue Royale and went off to buy several bottles of gin and a quart of olives. It was Friday afternoon, Aug. 15, 1969, and the skies were fair to the south above the marshy delta toward the Gulf of Mexico, but there was a storm far down there somewhere, coming up from the Caribbean, and if it did reach the Louisiana coast there would be many parties in the Quarter. The two gin-buyers would be prepared. They—and many people like them—would sit around on wicker furniture, listen to wind and rain smash the shutters and pretend they were marooned and in danger together, although of course it was deeply comforting to believe New Orleans would receive no more than a noisy shower out of the storm as it approached and passed away.
On the 14th floor of the Federal Building on Loyola Avenue, W. Clyde Connor and E. L. Hill of the U.S. Weather Bureau were trying to draw the route of this storm, which had formed a day earlier in the northwest Caribbean. By now it had a name—Camille—and had moved across the Isle of Pines, dumping 10 inches of rain on the gauges at the old Cuban prison. Traveling northwesterly at about 10 miles an hour, Camille tore up the tobacco fields on the western end of Cuba after dark on Friday at the height of the harvest season. Rainwater flowed down the mountains in a flood and wind ripped away the tender crops. The storm appeared to be bending toward Mobile and Pensacola, but many expected it to turn farther east and hit the Florida coast above St. Petersburg. At the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Dr. Robert H. Simpson said, "This could become one of the great storms, although it's too soon to tell. We can't predict the course right now. But somebody will get a beating."
The Seminole Indians of Florida's swamps believe they can forecast the path of a tropical cyclone—also called a hurricane or, in the Western Pacific and China Sea, a typhoon—by the leaning of the saw grass and the deepening green of the seaweed. The U.S. Weather Bureau seeks to do the same thing by using airplanes, ships, orbiting satellites, computers and educated men. But actually, on Friday afternoon, nobody knew where Camille was going.
Some feared the storm would continue directly on the path it took as it crossed Cuba and would strike the U.S. coast at Galveston, where 69 years earlier a hurricane had hurled 15-foot tides onto the island and killed 6,000 people. Tropical cyclones that start in the Atlantic, Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico are usually embedded in easterly winds but have a compulsion to turn toward higher latitudes. The storm struggles with itself, opposing winds whirl its tentacles counterclockwise and where it will hit is a matter of gambling guesswork until very late in the storm's life. A slight drift while the storm was yet 36 hours away from the coast would make a great difference in where Camille would eventually reach the shore. At the National Hurricane Center in Miami and in weather stations all along the Gulf Coast they waited for Camille to commit itself.
On Saturday morning hurricane-hunting airplanes were unable to penetrate to the eye of Camille, which was now in the Gulf. The Navy had Constellation aircraft on hurricane duty that weekend. The old Connies operate at low altitude and cannot invade a hurricane that has winds of higher than 125 knots. For hurricane patrol the Air Force had C-130s, newer and better planes than the Connies but equipped with less efficient radar. The Weather Bureau flew old DC-6s which had excellent radar but would be thrown about like chips by a storm of Camille's strength. All that could be deterrnined was that Camille was small in size but extremely vicious. Dr. Simpson called the storm "a bobcat." Warnings were issued for the Florida coast from Fort Walton to St. Marks. Along the rest of the Gulf Coast—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas—small-craft danger flags began to fly.
The Empire Fishing Rodeo continued as planned at the mouth of the Mississippi River southeast of New Orleans. Fishing boats journeyed into the Gulf and reported the water to be relatively calm. The skies remained clear. On Saturday morning Earl Honer, a 40-year-old industrial engineer, decided to drive over from New Orleans to Biloxi, some 85 miles, to pick up his 52-foot schooner, which had been anchored for six days 800 yards offshore from the Broadwater Beach Marina.
The previous week Honer and three friends—Charles Dussel, a 55-year-old machine-shop foreman; Frank Murray, a 45-year-old printer; and Ronald Durr, 28, a production supervisor and Dussel's son-in-law—had sailed the schooner to Biloxi, where the diesel engine quit before they could enter the marina.
Honer had bought the schooner nearly a year earlier, when he moved to New Orleans from St. Louis, where he learned to sail on Alton Lake. The schooner was built in 1928 for use in smuggling rum from Cuba. It had a cypress hull and a 60-foot mainmast. Originally called the Al Smith, it was now named Rum Runner. Earl Honer lived on the schooner and considered it his home. He constantly worked to improve it. Honer and Charles Dussel had just finished rewiring the craft. On weekends Honer would take his friends sailing in the Gulf. "We crew for Earl whenever weather and wives permit," said Dussel.
The week before Camille was born, there had been valve trouble on the Rum Runner outside the Broadwater Beach Marina. Honer and his crew were reluctant to bring their boat into the marina under sail because there were a couple of abrupt turns to make and many fine yachts were available for ramming. "I hate to pay for anything I can't eat," Dussel said. They attempted to get a tow home from the Coast Guard on a windless evening, but they were still under sail, theoretically had power and by law did not qualify for a lift.
On Saturday morning, Aug. 16, the four men drove to Biloxi in Dussel's Volkswagen bus. Honer's big navigational chart had gone overboard on the previous cruise and he had bought new charts but had left them in the trunk of his car. When they reached the Broadwater Beach Marina, Honer purchased a strip chart of the intracoastal waterway. By 11 a.m. Saturday, they were ready to sail the Rum Runner home, with Dussel's 18-foot outboard tied to the stern as a tender. "We checked with the harbor master, but he thought the hurricane was heading into Florida," said Honer. They figured it would require 12 to 14 hours to sail back to New Orleans, and they would be well away from the breath of Camille.