Camille Before Camille. Katrina Before Katrina.

Katrina wasn’t the only storm to devastate the Gulf Coast. There was Hurricane Camille, which rocked Biloxi. And there was another storm, centuries earlier, that might have been even more devastating. Biloxi’s historian emeritus explains.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 17, 2010

On this day in 1969, what was then the most powerful storm in American history made landfall. But Murella Herbert Powell, Biloxi’s historian emeritus [1] and the city’s walking Wikipedia page, thinks that designation is inaccurate. She believes Camille wasn’t without precedent. She notes the French historian Le Page Du Pratz, whose “History of Louisiana” documents a storm that Powell believes “sounds like Katrina.” According to Du Pratz’s writings, in March 1722, a storm hit the coast that brought 15-foot-high waves and flattened even the Biloxi grass. He later wrote:

“Every morning, for eight days running, a hollow noise, somewhat loud, was heard to reach from the sea to the Illinois; which arose from the west. In the afternoon it was heard to descend from the east, and that with an incredible quickness; and though the noise seemed to bear on the water, yet without agitating it, or discovering any more wind on the river than before. This frightful noise was only the prelude of a most violent tempest. The hurricane, the most furious ever felt in the province, lasted three days. As it arose from the south-west and north-east, it reached all the settlements which were along the Mississippi; and was felt for some leagues [2] more or less strong, in proportion to the greater or less distance: but in the places, where the force or height of the hurricane passed, it overturned every thing in its way, which was an extent of a large quarter of a league broad; so that one would take it for an avenue made on purpose, the place where it passed being entirely laid flat, whilst every thing stood upright on each side. The largest trees were torn up by the roots, and their branches broken to pieces and laid flat to the earth, as were also the reeds of the woods. In the meadows, the grass itself, which was then but six inches high, and which is very fine, could not escape, but was trampled, faded, and laid quite flat to the earth.”

Du Pratz went on to write that his home was only spared because he tied down the house to a tree using an eight-inch-long iron hook. Many other homes, he wrote, were destroyed in the storm. Powell says writings from the period confirm that waves carried some boats from the Gulf of Mexico across east Biloxi and into the Back Bay — a distance of about 1.5 miles. [3]

So that’s the first big storm in Biloxi history.

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The second hit Biloxi in 1893, just a decade before the city would become the self-titled seafood capital of the world, Powell says. The eye of that hurricane passed over Louisiana, but Powell says the storm still destroyed the entire fishing fleet of Biloxi. This was a period when local shrimpers sailed in boats known as Biloxi schooners, which were broad boats with shallow draft, which allowed shrimpers to get into the shallowest areas of the marshes. But the shrimpers had no warning about the advancing hurricane, Powell says.

“They were out there shrimping. They had no idea this hurricane was coming, and they were caught unawares,” she says. “The entire fleet was destroyed. Whole families of men — because usually a father and his son were working out there — whole families just drowned. The city was devastated.”

In that storm, 2,000 people died in Louisiana and Mississippi, Powell says.

But like in the big hurricanes that followed — the storm of 1947, 1969’s Hurricane Camille and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — Powell says the cities of the coast bonded together to rebuild. She says she saw the coast come together “very heroically” after Katrina, and Camille, too, and her research shows cross-coastal rebuilding efforts after the hurricane of 1893. In the aftermath of that storm, Biloxi appealed to New Orleans for help, and that city raised money to replace the Biloxi fishing fleet.

“Everybody helped everybody, no matter where you were…,” she says. “Now that is bringing people together.” ❑