Saturday, March 21, 2009

March 21, 1932 Alabama Tornado Outbreak

Photo by W.M. Russell, posted by NWS Birmingham

New York Times, March 23, 1932

See this album for articles on the tornadoes from 1932.

As bad as the well known April 3, 1974 Superoutbreak of tornadoes was in Alabama, it was not the worst Alabama tornado outbreak during the past 100-plus years of weather history. That distinction goes to the March 21, 1932 tornado outbreak. It is possible that over 355 Alabamians lost their life in this outbreak.

As of the next day, 86 were reported dead in Alabama by the NY Times. That figure would rise many times over. The University of Alabama gymnasium was turned into an emergency hospital and the students did valuable work in rendering aid to victims, according to the NY Times. Marion, in Perry County was hit by two tornadoes. The Lomax community was destroyed. The Times reported that a truck driver told of debris on the road and bodies of the dead were lying beside the highway. In Columbiana an abandoned courthouse was converted into a hospital and morgue. Herbert Kindred, an American Airways pilot said that he saw 200-300 buildings damaged at Northport as he flew over the town, with some of them on fire. The Tuscaloosa Country Club was leveled. At Faunsdale, box cars were blown across the tracks of the Southern Railway.

According to the 3/22/32 edition of the Decatur Daily, the Corinth community, near Battleground in Cullman County was very hard hit. Deaths were reported in the area, and the Daily reported that a Mrs. Ola Brock was hospitalized with part of her scalp torn away by crashing timbers as her home was leveled. Sheriff Ayers of Lawrence County reported several persons were killed east of the Piney Grove community. Dr. Lovelady, a Hartselle physician and his wife were perhaps spared because their vehicle was stuck in the mud as they were returning home from a call. If they had not been stuck, they would have likely driven into the path of the tornado. The Daily reported, "The direction of the path of the tornado is baffling old weather observers.....the tornado in Cullman made a horse-shoe path in some sections and later apparently divided."

Two men were killed in a hosiery mill in Paint Rock in Madison County, which was one of the hardest hit areas in the Tennessee Valley. First damage reports from Lacey's Spring and Paint Rock came from a railroad station operator.

By 3/23/32, the AP was reporting 260 fatalities in Alabama. Mass funerals were being conducted with Red Cross officials directing. The AP was reporting that hospitals across the state were filled and many more fatalities were expected.

As of the 23rd, the AP had reported the following fatality counts in Alabama communities. These totals were still changing due to difficulty in locating the missing, limited communication, and numerous critical injuries.

Chilton County 43
Falkville 25
Sylacauga 23
Cullman 20
Faunsdale 20
Columbiana 15
Plantersville 12
Randolph 9
Lineville 8
Bethel Church 8
Talladega 8
Stevenson 7
Bridgeport 6
Corinth 6
Linden 6
Paint Rock 4
Carnes 4
Ashland 3
Sycamore 3
Demopolis 3
Sycamore 3
Cox 3
Marion 2
Lacey's Spring 2
Lawley 1
Stanton 1
Falkville 1
Hatchet Creek 1

On 3/23/32 the New York Times reported that Alabama Governor B.M. Miller appealed for contributions to be made on behalf of storm sufferers through the Red Cross. He said, "There will be great suffering unless they are aided properly." University of Alabama students as well as county convicts helped search for victims in Northport. Phone lines were strung across the Warrior River from Northport to a hotel in Tuscaloosa. The NY Times reported that University of Alabama students did "heroic work in ministering to the injured." Eyewitnesses of the tornado in Northport said it was large, black, and moved slowly, appearing to stall at times.

By 3/24/32, the AP was reporting 298 fatalities in Alabama. Over 7,000 Alabamians were reported to be homeless as a result of the storm. The Montgomery Advertiser said that P.H. Smyth, a local meteorologist said that meteorologists were not permitted to forecast tornadoes. Mr. Smyth gave a very interesting description of the conditions that were thought to produce tornadoes at that time.

There were numerous interesting stories reported in the newspapers. On 3/24/32 the Montgomery Advertiser reported that Joe Bratton of Chilton County, after regaining consciousness in a Birmingham infirmary, remembered that he had left $600 in his Sunday trousers which were hanging in a closet. His son went to find the money and found the trousers lodged in a fence corner with the $600 still there. In the same area, Mrs. Headly, age 83, was fatally injured. Before she died, she was able to tell her brother where an earthen pot with $2700 in gold was buried. He found the gold before she passed.

As of 3/25/32, the Huntsville Times reported 299 known dead in Alabama. Governor B.M. Miller travelled 600 miles through the state witnessing severe destruction and heartache. At Collins Chapel in Chilton County he spent 15 minutes with Barney Chandler, who lost his wife, two children, brother, and father. He told the Governor, "All my family's gone now, governor. I just don't know which way to turn. There's only my boy left now," as he sobbed in his bed. The Governor said, "I know it's awful and someday we'll understand why it happened, though it's hard to see why just now. You take care of yourself, and we'll see that everything works out right." Near Linden, the Governor was told about a Mrs. Boozer, "whose life was saved by a faithful negro servant. Clutching her around the waist, he held her firmly against a pillar of the home until the storm passed by."

The Huntsville Times reported on another deadly tornado in its March 28, 1932 edition. The Times said that the seven deaths from that storm brought the week's fatality total to 362 in Alabama. Based on that, it is reasonable to believe that the number of fatalities in the 3/21/32 outbreak was at least 355 in Alabama. Also that day the Times reported that in Lacey's Spring in Morgan County large tombstones were lifted from the ground and thrown onto other sections of the graveyard. Even the dead were not safe in this outbreak.

The following are some excellent links to resources about this outbreak.

10 Most destructive Tornadoes From Around the World - Scienceray



Anonymous said...

Great post Mike. I completely forgot about scanning in that Huntsville Times article a few years ago.

Mike Wilhelm said...

Thanks Daniel. I have spent a long time in the library at UA 20 years ago researching this stuff. It's about time I shared some of it.

That was a remarkable day, to say the least. Probably very few around who remember it.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday my 84 yr old father recalled memories of the 1932 tornadoes. He was 6 at the time and said his dad put him in the car and they went from relative to relative checking on them. Dad's Uncle Charlie's home was totally destroyed. Dad remembers the acres of downed trees. My cousin had a news article from Clay Co about it. When I looked online to see what more I could find about his memory, I found your website. THANK YOU so much for posting all this info!