While this area of Northwest Florida escaped the wrath of Camille, it did not go totally unscathed. The uncertainty of landfall put the area’s Civil Defense unit to the test and there were more than a few who heeded warnings and chose to move to shelters or left the area.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Camille.

Making landfall as a Category 5 hurricane Aug. 18, 1969, Hurricane Camille left 259 people dead in its wake before exiting the United States on Aug. 20.

While this area of Northwest Florida escaped the wrath of Camille, it did not go totally unscathed. The uncertainty of landfall put the area’s Civil Defense unit to the test and there were more than a few who heeded warnings and chose to move to shelters or left the area.

Hurricane Camille was born before the eyes of a hurricane hunter pilot, according to Dr. Robert H. Simpson, director of the National Hurricane Center. On Aug. 15 the Associated Press reported that a hunter aircraft flew into a tropical wave in the Caribbean on Aug. 14 and did not find anything of note. Circling around for about an hour, the aircraft re-entered the wave and found that the barometric pressure had fallen 10 millibars and winds had increased from 30 to 60 mph. Forecasters began issuing advisories that called for rapid intensification into what would become Hurricane Camille.

By Aug. 16, the National Weather Bureau issued hurricane warnings for Northwest Florida from Fort Walton Beach to St. Marks and gale warnings from Pensacola to Cedar Key. A hurricane watch was in effect from Fort Walton Beach to Biloxi, Mississippi. Camille was 350 miles south of Pensacola moving northwest at 12 mph with a more northerly track expected. The highest estimated winds were 150 mph near the center.

In advance of the storm, the Air Force began moving aircraft from Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base to “safe” bases throughout the South, and Air Police were distributing hurricane handout sheets. The Red Cross was moving personnel and equipment into the area. Four schools were named as shelters. Persons living in low-lying areas were asked to evacuate by Civil Defense. Residents began to prepare.

Tom Nickols, Civil Defense director for Okaloosa County, said in a Daily News article that the major concern was high tides that were predicted at 5 to 12 feet, with the possibility of 6 to 8 feet additional with the storm. Fort Walton Beach Acting Fire Chief Bill Lee said most new construction was built to withstand hurricane force winds, but there was no protection against water.

By the evening of Aug. 16, businesses were noting a loss of customers. Many motel guests had left. Nightclubs reported business as being slow. However, business at the local movie theaters was still reported as “pretty good,” with weather bulletins announced during films. Liquor stores reported doing a brisk business, with reports of hurricane parties being held on Okaloosa Island.

According to a Daily News account, the morning of Aug. 17 dawned with a gusty but mild wind from the south. By 8 a.m., people were on the beach watching the 6- to 8-foot waves crash ashore. By mid-morning the sun had moved behind a layer of clouds and by late morning a slight rain began to fall. “No one worried much — even for a brief spell when winds gusted 50 mph.” In total, 359 people used the shelter at Choctawhatchee High School. There were 59 at Shalimar Elementary School and 100 at Niceville High School. Destin Elementary was empty.

By 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 17, winds of 125 mph were reported at Biloxi, Mississippi. Hurricane Camille was headed inland. The U.S. Weather Bureau issued warnings of monster tides driven by the wind to heights of up to 20 feet. The Red Cross said it had established 341 evacuation shelters in the storm area with over 21,000 persons reported in them. By 12:45 a.m. Aug. 18, the eye of Camille moved over McHenry, Mississippi, 182 miles west of Northwest Florida.

Camille's actual maximum sustained winds are not known because the hurricane destroyed all the wind-recording instruments in the landfall area. However, a later analysis of data by the U.S. Weather Bureau found that peak winds were roughly 175 mph along the coast. The Pass Christian, Mississippi, area experienced a storm tide of 24.6 feet. The Mississippi adjutant general surveying Hurricane Camille’s destruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast later on Aug. 18 said, “It looks like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb hit.”

The worst hurricane in decades had bypassed Northwest Florida, leaving residents with only driving rain, squalls and boarded and taped windows.

Criticism of how local officials handled the situation began soon after the possible danger had passed, which prompted a Daily News editorial Aug. 19. It said in part, “Although some criticism has been voiced about the precautions advised and taken by our local officials, they acted with calm and decision in the face of what could have been almost certain destruction. ... It Is better to err on the side of caution than to have to make an agonizing reappraisal of one’s mistakes.”