CATEGORY: Tupelo Stories
TORNADO CUTS SWATH OF DESTRUCTION THROUGH SOUTHEAST
By Phyllis Harper
Sixty years ago the second deadliest tornado in history started its lethal path through several Southeastern states.
Coming from the west, touching down sporadically and leaving death and suffering in its wake, the storm hit Tupelo about 9 p.m. on Sunday, April 5, 1936. Then it moved eastward across Alabama and Georgia, where it struck Gainesville shortly after 8 a.m. Monday.
More than 200 people were killed in Tupelo, more than 200 in Gainesville. Dozens more died as the storm front zigzagged across the country and spawned tornadoes that touched down in scattered rural areas and villages.
Exact numbers were difficult to determine because communication capabilities that existed then were lost in the widespread destruction, and the numbers of dead and injured reported in newspaper headlines around the country kept increasing for a week or more.
With hundreds killed and thousands more injured, millions of dollars were lost in property damages, and great numbers of the survivors were left homeless.
Though the numbers from Tupelo and Gainesville vary a little, newspaper stories from one town could have been used to describe the destruction and suffering in the other, and the collective memory of that night and day has not been lost in either place.
Newspapers in both places are running 60th anniversary stories. Charles Duncan, a writer at the Gainesville Times, said their figure of 212 deaths included a few people whose bodies were never found. He said some reports were as low as 203 dead, but that 212 was the number cited locally for the past six decades.
Because the storm hit Gainesville in the morning, many of the dead were workers in a local factory, and the property damage did not cover as wide an area as in Tupelo, where residential sections were the hardest hit.
Among one set of figures released by the American National Red Cross, 222 dead were listed in Tupelo, though some reports reached as high as 233.
The injured from each town went to hospitals far and wide, and as many of the injured died, the count went upward. Then as family members located one another, sometimes weeks later, names were removed from the casualty list.
Figures hardly tell the story, and when compared to stories of individual anguish and loss, they seem less important.
The worst tornado in history roared through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925, killing 689 people, according to the World Book Encyclopedia.