On Aug. 18, 1969, Hurricane Camille made landfall along the Gulf Coast of the United States as a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest storm on Earth. Hurricanes are rated by wind speed and the damage they inflict, with Category 5 defined as sustained winds of 157 mph (252 kph) or greater, strong enough to flatten even well-built homes and send debris flying like airborne missiles. Camille had winds as high as 175 mph (282 kph).
Camille was Ruth Clark's first hurricane. The then-27-year-old native of Richton, Mississippi, 70 miles inland from the Gulf Coast, took shelter in her church's partial basement, huddled with her husband and neighbors as the storm tore straight through her hometown. Hours earlier, at the Trinity Episcopal Church in coastal Pass Christian, Miss., 15 people drowned in Camille's historic storm surge.
"You really can't describe to anybody what it's like to sit through a hurricane," says Clark, who also rode out Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, in 2005. "It's almost like they describe the sound of a tornado, like listening to a train go by, except it doesn't pass on and it's over with. It just keeps going and going and going. You're hearing the popping and the crackling of the trees, and the fireworks from the power lines going down, popping and snapping. It's just a horrendous sound."
During both storms, Clark wondered more than once if it was the end. The giant oak trees lining Richton's streets toppled in the brutal and relentless winds, which raged for hours. All it would take was for one of those trees to come crashing through the roof, or for the walls to succumb to the terrible force.
"The house is trembling like it's an earthquake. You just feel everything shaking and you don't know what's going to happen," says Clark, who now lives outside of Atlanta, Georgia. "You do a lot of praying."
Doug Rohan was just starting his senior in high school when Hurricane Andrew, another Category 5 storm, slammed into South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992. Rohan and his family took refuge in his father's boarded-up office building and spent a long, blacked-out night listening to the rattle and thump of unknown objects careening across the rooftop.
"When daylight came and we opened the door to look outside, we realized that the rumblings were heard on the rooftops were probably very large tree limbs or porta-potties blown four to five blocks from construction sites," remembers Rohan. "There were faces of office buildings that were sheared off from the facade. That's what a Category 5 hurricane can do in a direct hit."
Rohan lived just 2 miles (3 kilometers) north of the worst devastation in the Homestead district. At the Homestead Air Force Base, fighter jets were sucked out of hangers. Rohan says that entire neighborhoods were leveled as if a "Hiroshima-style bomb" had detonated in South Miami. More than 180,000 people in Miami-Dade County were left homeless and 1.4 million people had no power, many for weeks. Rohan will never forget that most of what remained standing was slathered on the windward side with a pea-green slurry.
"Every single leaf was stripped from every single tree and minced up like it was in a blender," says Rohan. "So, you had all this sap oozing out, mixed with the rain, and it was like a poultice on all the buildings and cars. It was like snow drifts, except it was like finely chopped green leaves."
Corene Matyas researches tropical cyclones (aka hurricanes) at the University of Florida. She explains that Category 5 hurricanes draw their massive power from a set of ideal storm-generating conditions that converge in late summer over the Atlantic. Tropical cyclones extract their energy from warm ocean waters, and the Atlantic and Caribbean are the warmest in August and September. All it takes is an area of low pressure and an influx of air (wind) to "fill" the pressure gap. The wind evaporates warm water from the ocean surface and draws the moisture upward where it condenses into a swirling column of clouds.
"Soon you have a positive feedback mechanism," Matyas says. "The faster the wind, the more productive the storm, which then lowers the surface pressure further, which makes the winds faster, which makes it evaporate more. If everything is set up just right for the storm, this process can keep going and going, which is what we're seeing with Irma. There isn't anything disrupting this process right now."
A Category 5 hurricane is likely to do 500 times more damage than a Category 1 hurricane, which has winds of 95 mph (152 kph). Only three Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S. so far: Camille, Andrew and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
The types of damage Clark and Rohan experienced is very typical of a Category 5 hurricane. The Weather Channel notes that at this level of storm, "People, livestock, and pets are at very high risk of injury or death from flying or falling debris ... A high percentage of industrial buildings and low-rise apartment buildings will be destroyed ... Nearly all trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed."
But Clark and Rohan agree that although living through a storm is terrifying, what no one is prepared for is the aftermath. The debris and destruction can be overwhelming, as is the late summer heat without air conditioning. Power may be out for weeks, grocery stores are closed and roads are often impassable. Ice becomes one of the most critical commodities as people try to salvage and preserve the food quickly thawing in their chest freezers.
With phone lines down (this was before cell phones), Rohan's uncles followed their instincts and drove a pickup from Gainesville, Fla. with five coolers of ice, two chainsaws and a bunch of hotdogs. Rohan was a newly minted Eagle Scout and he and his family camped in the backyard for two weeks cooking on the propane grill. Tens of thousands of other South Floridians slept for months in tent cities set up by the National Guard.
After Katrina, Clark's small town of Richton was cut off by flooded rivers from the bigger city of Hattiesburg. The National Guard sent in Blackhawk helicopters with ice and MREs (meals ready to eat). Clark had to have the roof replaced on her house, and it took her several months just to clear the fallen trees and other debris from her yard.
Hurricanes can be incredibly fickle and almost random with their destructiveness. "Even with all of those hurricane models and cool graphics, there's still a lot of uncertainty," says Rohan. "A couple of miles are going to make the difference between the worst weather and basically a severe thunderstorm. You could evacuate because you think you're going to get hit and then nothing happens. Or alternatively, you can hunker down and ride out the storm, and then -- pow! -- you're hit with 220-mph gusts and your home is flattened."