CATEGORY: Tupelo Stories
Whirlwind of memories
Tupeloans measure time before and after 1936 tornado
By Phyllis Harper
Sultry. Warm – too warm, really. Oppressive. Foreboding.
The day broke fair that morning, April 5, 1936, but Tupeloans who remember say the weather, the very atmosphere, was strange from the time the day began.
People went to church, ate Sunday dinner at home or packed picnic lunches for drives to the country, and spent the last normal leisurely Sunday they would know for a long time.
Windy. Gusty. Sunshine too bright. Close. Hot. Humid. Hard to breathe. Many repeat such words as they talk about that spring day and the changes as afternoon progressed toward evening.
A pinkish glow in the west and increasing cloudiness were the first visible signs of dreadful things to come. Most people who went to church went straight home afterward, sensing a threat in the weather, but unaware of the record-breaking violent nature of a storm front approaching from the southeast.
Sporadic and gusty winds increased in intensity as evening turned into night. A feeling of unease also increased; many remember comments about the weather, and a watchfulness as clocks ticked toward the fateful hour.
Some saw a ball of fire, others a roiling black mass filled with flashes of lightning as the storm moved toward them. As the tornado reached ground, some heard a roar like a thousand locomotives overhead, others a shrieking painful to the ears.
Sometime between 9 and 9:08 p.m., the tornado came from the west-southwest, touching down to kill 13 members of one family just west of the city limits. After hitting the Willis Heights area, it stayed on the ground, cutting a wide swath through what is now the West Main/Rankin intersection, and went on across town.
The air filled with debris, lightning eerily illuminated the horror, and 48 city blocks in Tupelo were leveled. More than 200 were killed here, more than a thousand injured, many of them seriously.
Most people remember momentary silence as the Tornado of ’36 left town and continued its deadly path eastward. The silence was followed by a torrential rain unlike anything most people had ever experienced. Then the night grew loud with moans and screams of the injured and dying, of people emerging from wreckage seeking loved ones, calling out their names.
Work to be done
Pandemonium reigned for a time. Heroes, too numerous to count, went to work. Lemuel Paul Fain, a city employee, at risk to his own life managed to find his way from his damaged home on Park Street to the Tupelo Light Plant behind the Lyric Theater, where he kicked off all the switches, thereby preventing many deaths from electrocution as people took to the streets seeking help and helping one another.
Poor and wealthy, black and white – class and racial barriers were ignored that night and for days and nights to come.
Prominent Tupelo businessmen helped wash and dress bodies before family members came to identify them. Club women cooked and fed family and friends and strangers alike. Stores opened to give people flashlights and blankets and other necessities.
Local doctors and nurses were at work immediately. As the call went out, physicians, nurses, ambulance crews and funeral directors came from far and near. All of them worked for days and nights, and one survivor recalls the late Dr. Carl Feemster coming home to get clean clothes and food, and lamenting with anguish that he didn’t even have a sterile scalpel or little of anything else to help hurting people. But that changed as help arrived and rescue work progressed.
Homes remaining upright were turned into hospitals and morgues, as was the Lee County Courthouse and the Lyric Theater, where a popcorn machine came into use as a sterilizer.
Word went out that Tupelo had been “wiped off the map,” and train conductors and bus drivers without orders from their companies changed their routes to reach Tupelo and help transport the injured to hospitals as far away as Memphis and Meridian.
Along with the self-sacrificing efforts of scores, perhaps hundreds, of people who went beyond the call of duty, looters appeared. Gov. Hugh White declared martial law and stationed National Guardsmen in town to keep order.
The homeless moved in with family and friends when possible, or into hotels, and a “boxcar city” provided housing for others. The Red Cross work was massive, and other groups assisted in many ways, and individuals helped one another. Within weeks rebuilding began, but scars would remain for a long time, and people who lived through it would never forget.
Even today giant water oaks on Rankin Boulevard lean eastward, bent in that direction by the winds of 60 years ago.
Cutting a path
The Tornado of ’36 roared its way eastward, cutting a path of destruction through Alabama and into Georgia, where the death toll in Gainesville also rose above 200. Because of the nature of the storm, its sometimes straight and sometimes zigzag moves, plus the death and destruction that followed, the exact times it hit and the number of fatalities were difficult to assess, but since that night many Tupeloans have measured time as Before Tornado and After Tornado.
In the aftermath of one of the strongest tornado-spawning weather fronts on record, some spoke of miracles, of emotional reunions as survivors found one another, and of the kindness of those who helped with funerals and the burial of the dead.
Strange stories abound of chickens shorn of their feathers, of cows dehorned, washtubs turned wrong side out, pine straw driven into hardwood trees, of delicate china left unbroken where a house was demolished and swept away.
Stories of the Tupelo Tornado continue to be told.
The Northeast Mississippi Historical & Genealogical Society’s book, “Tupelo, Mississippi Tornado of 1936” is ready for publication. Printed on acid-free paper, the hardback book of 110 pages with 50 to 60 photographs will sell for $32.50, which includes tax. It will be available at the Friends of Lee County Library gift shop, and proceeds from the sale will be used to buy needed equipment for the library.
One section in the book lists tornadoes recorded in Lee County since the 1880s, another has information on the deaths that occurred as the ’36 storm front moved into Georgia causing almost as much devastation in Gainesville as in Tupelo.
Dick Rice, meteorologist at WTVA-Channel 9, using maps obtained from the National Weather Service, wrote an analysis of weather conditions the first week in April that created two strong storm fronts moving across the country mere days apart.
A 45-minute video, “Tupelo Tornado,” made for NMH&GS a few years ago is available on loan from the library at no cost.
Both book and video incorporate interviews with survivors, photographs of B.T. and A.T. scenes, clippings of news stories and editorials from newspapers far and wide.
They are tangible reminders of a city laid waste by a freak of nature, of a people bound together by tragedy, and of a progressive spirit that helped Tupelo rise like a legendary phoenix from the rubble to become a bigger and better place.