The Damn Thing Almost Blew Down.

They called it the worst storm that ever hit the coast. A once-in-a-hundred-years kind of storm. It brought 200 mile-per-hour winds and tore apart any property built near the water. And no, it wasn’t named Hurricane Katrina. This man survived it, and then tried to rebuild after it.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 9, 2010

It was supposed to hit either Alabama or Florida, so Danny Guice came home. This was back in 1969, when we were still sending recon planes into Atlantic storms to measure their severity. Our satellite technology was incapable of complex prediction models.[1] This storm, Hurricane Camille, had been expected to buzz Cuba and steer toward Miami, but it moved west instead. The Mississippi coast was placed under Hurricane Watch status.

Guice had just been elected the mayor of Biloxi for the third consecutive term, and he and his wife had decided to spend those post-inaugural days vacationing at a friend’s home in Florida. The hurricane’s projected path forced Guice to cancel the rest of his vacation, even though Guice remembers thinking at the time that “it didn’t seem like that big of a storm.”

But the projections kept changing. The Hurricane Watch became a more severe Hurricane Warning, with Biloxi right on the western edge of the warning area. The coast didn’t panic; in the post-Camille edition of the Daily Herald, there are photos of children playing on a Biloxi beach just hours before the storm hit. At the same time, forecasters were finally pinning down Camille’s track and offering their ultimate warning:

Evacuate immediately.

“The damn storm just turned around and came out,” Guice says, “and the next day after I got home, it was coming into Biloxi.”

Guice moved his wife and children to a room at Biloxi’s Buena Vista Hotel. “I figured that was the safest place for them,” he says. “Damn thing almost blew down.”

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The flood zones in Biloxi before and after the storm.

Above is a side-by-side comparison of the flood zone in east Biloxi. The first is the map that was sent out to residents in August 2005, just days before Katrina. Below it is the map of the expanded, post-Katrina flood zone. Any areas in blue are part of the zone that officials believe could be flooded in case of a hurricane. For scale, the area shown is about two miles wide. — Map courtesy FEMA and the City of Biloxi

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There are three notable hurricanes in Biloxi history: the Hurricane of 1947, which predates the modern system of naming storms; Hurricane Camille, in 1969; and Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. All three, at the time they hit, were called the worst storm that would ever strike the coast, according to several locals who’ve lived through all three.

Camille has a particular place in Biloxi lore. It brought 200 mile-per-hour winds and tore open any property built near the water. It’s also, in a phrase that’s made the rounds in Biloxi, the reason why Katrina was so deadly. Aside from the very young or the very old, I’ve yet to meet a Biloxi resident who evacuated the city during Katrina. Their rationale for staying is always the same: Camille was considered the most devastating hurricane in the city’s history, and Camille did its damage with high winds. So when locals heard that Katrina’s winds were topping out at 135 miles per hour, they relaxed. If they’d already survived Camille’s 200 mile-per-hour winds, then a 135 mile-per-hour wind wasn’t much of a problem.

What they didn’t expect was Katrina’s water surge. In Biloxi, the area east of Interstate 110 is about two miles long and 1.5 miles wide. During Katrina, that area was under water for hours. Residents had stayed in their homes because they did not fear Katrina’s winds; they did not know they were supposed to fear Katrina’s waters. These were residents who, up until their very last moments before death, could not possibly imagine that a storm could be worse than Camille.

Camille killed more people during Katrina then Katrina did, Biloxians say.

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Danny Guice [2] did not run for mayor of Biloxi for the money. The job paid $7,200 per year; he had to keep working as an attorney just to pay his bills. Biloxi was different in the 1960s, smaller and still heavily segregated. [3] “Not real prosperous” is how Guice describes the area, laughing at the thought of how much Biloxi’s changed since he was mayor. Then, the city ran on fishing boats that docked on the east side of town and military jets that flew out of Keesler Air Force base along the Back Bay. Before this became a casino town, Biloxi survived on shrimp cocktail and international conflict.

Before running for mayor, Guice had served as both a Harrison County judge and the county’s only representative in the state House. He took to City Hall with two goals, he says: keep the peace and protect the existing economy. This was a man who told the crowd gathered for his July 3, 1961, inauguration, “Good things I might do during my administration, I dedicate now to the memory of my mother.” He entered office with modest hopes, and left having attempted to reconstruct an entire city.

He’s forgotten some details with age, he says, but he still remembers the first hours after Camille. The power was out across town. The last working phone in the city was his. Homes needed rebuilding, water and sewer lines needed patching. The city initially estimated the damages in Biloxi at $1,890,000. [4]

“It was just a sight that was hard to behold,” he says.

But Guice’s post-Camille challenges were less daunting than those faced by the city after Katrina, he believes. The biggest difference was in the amount of bureaucracy involved in the 1969 cleanup. FEMA wasn’t created until a decade later; Guice and the city’s two commissioners had control over much of the recovery efforts. Guice believes that had other layers of government existed, it would have made his job “very difficult.”

Unlike the post-Katrina recovery, insurance costs did not skyrocket after Camille, which aided those looking to build back quickly.

“We didn’t have those kind of problems in our rebuilding effort,” Guice says.

When locals heard that Katrina’s winds were topping out at 135 miles per hour, they relaxed. If they’d already survived Camille’s 200 mile-per-hour winds, then a 135 mile-per-hour wind wasn’t much of a problem.

Those who were rebuilding were also fortunate that Camille caused less water damage. Guice says the flood zones were changed after the storm (see sidebar, above), but not nearly to the extent that they were redrawn after Katrina. Under the smaller flood zone, fewer homes had to be built to exacting flood specifications.

Still, the post-Katrina investment in the coast far exceeded the dollars that Guice saw during his tenure. He says he had to learn to run a city that was barely getting by.

“My whole 12 years, we didn’t have a lot of money to spend,” he said. “Those were hard times.”

Guice considers himself lucky, though. Several other mayors along the coast had just been elected to their first term a month before Camille hit; Guice had long-established ties to the state government in Jackson and the federal government in Washington, and he believes that allowed him to get recovery funds faster.

But even now, more than 40 years after Camille, Guice says it’s still difficult to think back on the months of rebuilding that followed the hurricane.

“It’s hard to describe what went on right after the storm,” he says, “and how hard we had to work and did work to get everything.”

In 1973, Guice opted not to run for re-election. A new mayor, Jerry O’Keefe, stepped in to continue the rebuilding efforts.

“That four years after Camille was enough for me,” Guice says. ❑