'Whoever was screaming and hollering, we would help’

By Ernest Brown

A first-person account by Ernest Bowen, 1936 tornado survivor:

I was in high school at the time. Not quite 16. That is where the middle school is now. The back of the building was destroyed. The night it hit, my mother and dad were arguing whether a storm was coming or if it was a train.
There was no such thing as a tornado warning back then. It happened at 9 p.m. It was so hot that night. You could not get fresh air. People were sitting out on their porches. When the roar started, my mother said it was a storm, and my dad said it sounded like a freight train moving through at top speed. There was so much lightning in it, it was like first dawn. You could see everything.
We lived on South Madison, one house off Main. That part was spared total destruction.
When it hit, it started with big pieces of hail. Our house was facing east, and it blew off the north side. Storm came in on the southwest. The windows were damaged.
My father had a woodwork shop next to the old fairgrounds. He said, ‘Let’s go see what’s left of my shop.’ We got as far as the corner. The debris was so heavy.
This was a city of trees, and they were all gone. We worked our way to the old hospital, which was next to First Methodist Church. People needed to be dug out on the north side. Whoever was screaming and hollering, we would help. People who could were digging people out. We worked our way to Franklin Street.
One of the two Wiley brothers, Dan, said ‘We can’t find our parents.’ We found his father under the floor of the house. He was alive. We dug him out. My father was a big man. We found an old door, put him on it and drug him to the hospital.
It was utter chaos in town. Rain had drenched the streets. Some were knee-deep in water. At the hospital, it had to be abandoned because the roof was beginning to go. A lot of patients were taken to the Methodist church. It was the only one in town that was not destroyed, besides the Catholic church. They used the Lyric Theatre, too. The operating room was set up on stage. It was where they did operations or whatever, bandaged people. The only thing left was Mercurichrome, iodine and rubbing alcohol.
They ran out of bandages, and I remember my mother giving them clean sheets to be used for bandages. They ripped them up.
They used the courthouse, the bottom floor, for a morgue. The bodies were in the hallway. The west side of the courthouse was splattered with mud. The mud came from a pond on the west side of Tupelo. It was picked up and thrown.
The hardest thing afterward was finding food and water. There was one water tank in Tupelo, and it was gone. There was no power, no nothing. Daddy built a fire in the yard and my mother cooked things on it. I’m not sure if it was the Red Cross or Salvation Army, but there was a soup kitchen to feed people.
The National Guard … there was a (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp in Tishomingo, and they brought it in to clear the streets. They used hand saws, they didn’t have chain saws back then, and cut a path so the ambulance could get through.
Then the looting started. They came in with trucks and wagons. They got clothing, furniture. There were only three or four police officers in Tupelo, and they could not control it. The governor declared martial law. The National Guard would not let anyone in or out. I don’t know if it was a week or 10 days after that, they allowed people to come in and see. They had a route you could drive, and you could not stop. It was just bumper to bumper.
The north side of town was gone. The south side was intact, and so was the business section.
We finally got to my dad’s shop. A huge piece of wood had blown through the front of the shop. When he got everything running, he had huge machinery run by big motors, the belts kept jumping off. The building had moved.
I finished my sophomore year at the Tupelo Military Academy, which was on Clayton Street. They rebuilt the school, and we graduated on time. The back of the high school was wrecked. The gym was gone. It was too dangerous to have school there.
The junior high was gone. I don’t remember where they went. There was only one primary school, on Church Street. It was destroyed.
A lot of passenger trains came through Tupelo. One came in and they loaded it with the injured people. They backed it up to New Albany, and sent it on to Memphis. A lot of families were separated when they took them to Memphis, and it took a long time to get them back together.
The Burrough family was the first whole family that was killed. There is a church on South Thomas Street. If you stood at the back and looked across the knoll, that was the first place it hit. A man, his wife and their 11 children were all killed. Then the tornado skipped, and sat down on West Main, and went straight through.
Gum Pond lake – it blew all the houses in that area into the water. Most of the people who died went into the water.
There was a building boom after it hit. They got everything cleaned up fairly soon. People started building homes again. Within a month or two, people were rebuilding. Before the storm, Tupelo was a sleepy little town. This set everything off. It was progressive. People tore down and remodelled. It was a renaissance. We had the same city council for years, and we started getting new blood in. It made the town grow.
A lot of the rebuilt homes had storm shelters.