By Michaela Gibson Morris
TUPELO – Norris “Piggie” Caldwell, Nathaniel Stone and Jack Reed Sr. were children when the April 5, 1936 tornado roared through Tupelo.
Living through a second Tupelo tornado last week was a milestone none of them wanted to see.
“I hope we never have to go through another one,” said Caldwell, 84.
The 1936 tornado damaged the homes of all three men and took the lives of friends. This time, only Reed’s home on Legion Lake Road suffered signficant damage.
“The loss of life was the biggest difference,” said Reed, 90. In 1936, some 240 people died in the F5 tornado.
“I’ll never forget a minute of the 1936 tornado,” Reed said. “When we came out when it was all over, we thought we were the only ones alive it was so quiet.”
Reed bypassed the terror of the 2014 tornado itself. He was at a medical appointment at North Mississippi Medical Center when the tornado damaged his home as well as those of two of his children.
“It was quite a shock; we couldn’t get there,” Reed said of his home. “There’s a lot to repair. Fortunately, we have a multitude of people working on it.”
Caldwell rode out the 2014 tornado in his Hillshire Place home with his wife Mary Ann and some neighbors, just a few blocks from the devastated areas around St. Luke United Methodist Church. His basement is reinforced with steel beams, a legacy of the 1936 tornado survivors who built the house in 1955.
“We had a tree blown down … we were just on the edge of it,” Caldwell said.
In the aftermath, Caldwell worried over his sons, who were at work at their businesses on McCullough Boulevard.
“We didn’t know until two or three hours after the storm that they were OK,” Caldwell said.
There were no tornado warning systems in 1936. It would be nearly 20 years before there was a local televsion station. This time Tupelo had Matt Laubhaun on WTVA and telelphone alert warnings that sent people for cover.
“I think that’s what saved people’s lives,” Caldwell said. “I’m amazed when I look at the damage.”
Stone, now 84, was safe at his President Street home, away from the tornado’s destructive path of 2014. But in 1936, he was in the middle of one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, now called Park Hill. As a 6-year-old boy, Stone rode out the storm at his grandmother’s house on what is now Barnes Street. He remembers emerging barefoot to streets covered with hail and debris.
“We got more hail than we did rain,” Stone said. “Sticks were sticking out of the ground like grass” in a field off North Green where the storm winds had driven debris into the ground.
His mother, who weathered the storm on Broadway, was hit in the head with debris. He remembers neighbors cutting her hair and using sheets to stem the bleeding. She survived, but suffered from headaches through the years.
In the rebuilding, people took safety seriously.
“After that storm, everyone started building storm houses,” Stone said.
The survivors of the 1936 tornado know tough days are still ahead for those whose homes and business were damaged on Monday.
“This is terrible for the people affected,” said Caldwell, who remembers Tupelo being paralyzed for 18 months after the 1936 tornado.
But out of the destruction, new life took hold in 1936.
“In retrospect, the community built back stronger,” Reed said. “I think the Tupelo Spirit can almost be dated back to that tornado.”
Caldwell said he sees that same spirit of cooperation emerging from the debris of the 2014 tornado.
“People worked hard together,” in 1936, Caldwell said. “Just like they do now.… What a joy to see.”