The Great March 21, 1932 Disaster

| March 20, 2009 @ 11:07 am | 556 Replies

Alabama has experienced a number of tornado disasters over the years. The March 21, 1932 event still stands out as our most tragic, yes, even worse than the Super Outbreak of April 3-4, 1974.

Back in the 1970s, I spent most of a day in the Downtown Birmingham Public Library searching the microfilm files of the Birmingham Age-Herald, Birmingham News and others seeking information. Awesome event. Official stats of the U.S. Weather Bureau after the event listed 268 fatalities and 1874 injuries. However, there were several news reports that placed the deaths at about 300 and 3,000 injuries.

I feel sure Bill Murray will post much more information on this historic event this weekend. However, I wanted to repeat a Special Weather Statement that I wrote for the statewide Alabama Weather Teletype Network on March 21, 1989, about two months before I retired from the NWS. (I believed by this time, it was called the NOAA Weather Wire)

PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE BIRMINGHAM AL
745 AM CST TUE MAR 21, 1989

…Alabama’s Worst Tornado Day…a Look at the Great Storm of March 21, 1932…57 years ago…

March 20, 1932 dawned warm and springlike across Alabama. By afternoon, temperatures reached the 80s in most of the state.

It was a Sunday. The Birmingham News featured a front page story saluting the arrival of spring officially scheduled for 1:54 p.m. that same day.

Said the news, “Spring will brinig thoughts of love to the young men and thoughts of new clothes to women.” They continued, “Baseball is in the air, new clothes are on the streets, Easter is only a week away and spring is on her throne.”

But disaster lurked in the wings.

And next day it hit…deadly tornadoes…the greatest catastrophe ever to hit Alabama.

Official Weather Bureau tabulations said that 268 persons were killed in Alabama with 1874 injured.

It was around 3:30 in the afternoon on that fateful Monday when the first black funnels came pounding to the ground in the Demopolis, Linden, Faunsdale areas of West/Central Alabama. Death came to 36 persons in Marengo County, 136 were injured and 180 homes were destroyed.

Then came the disaster at Tuscaloosa and Northport.

A clock at the demolished Tuscaloosa Country Club stopped at 4:01 p.m. 30 minutes after the first strikes near Demopolis.

After striking the western end of Tuscaloosa, the death-dealing tornado plowed across the Warrior River into Northport. Witnesses said it was shaped like an ice cream cone and it was so filled with airborne debris that it had an eerie white glow resembling a whirling heavy snow shower moving in on the city.

But it was not snow.

38 persons died in Northport and 250 were injured. Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa was quickly filled to capacity. The University of Alabama gymnasium was pressed into service as an emergency additional hospital.

Reported the Tuscaloosa News, “It looked as if Northport had been bombed.”

Only one hour later, still more disaster. A path of destruction 20 miles long was cut across Cullman County. It left 23 dead and 300 injured. The Fairview community was hardest hit.

The tragic day continued to unfold. Tornadoes struck in Alabama from 3:30 in the afternoon to at least 7:00 in the evening. A broad area received severe damage generally from Demopolis on the SW to Scottsboro, Stevenson and Paint Rock in NE Alabama and also eastward to Chilton, Coosa and Clay Counties.

Chilton County in Central Alabama was hit extremely hard with 58 persons killed. The Union Grove community near Jemison was laid to waste. Doctors and nurses from Montgomery and Birmingham worked all night by lantern and flashlight to relieve the widespead suffering. In Clay County, one of the tornadoes remained on the ground for 30 miles cutting a path 400 yards wide. A new automobile became airborne and was carried through the air for a distance of 400 yards. 12 persons died in Clay County and 200 were injured. After the tornado, there were people living in the Clay County Courthouse.

Odd happenings were too numerous to mention. At Columbiana in Shelby County where 18 persons died, 36 eggs were left unbroken on a kitchen table even though the house was destroyed and the tornado even sucked the drawer out of the table where the eggs were.

Alabama Governor B. M. Miller immediately issued a proclamation calling on all Alabama residents to rise to the occasion and help those in distress. Then he traveled the state for days in his T-Model Ford trying to visit all of the damaged areas to offer help and encouragement.

It is possible that we do not know exactly how many tornadoes hit Alabama on that tragic day in 1932. In Perry County, the city of Marion was struck twice in only three hours and 23 persons died in the county. There were two waves of tornadoes: one starting in West Alabama at midafternoon and another wave after dark.

Near Faunsdale on U.S. 80 in NE Marengo County east of Demopolis (one of the first towns hit), the owner of an 800-acre plantation found a horse collar, a dead pig and the body of a three-year-old child all jammed together in a hollow tree stump. The child and the pig were both dead.

It was truly Alabama’s worse disaster that spring day of March 21, 1932 that started out so pleasant.
——————————————————-
WHAT IF?
I have pondered over this hundreds of times over the years. In that 1932 disaster there was no such thing as a tornado warning, no radar, no satellite, no TV station, very few radio stations and very few phones in rural Alabama. If there had been all of the present day technology with instantaneous weather warnings and wall-to-wall coverage on radio and T.V., it is interesting to speculate how much the death and injury tolls could have been lessened. We hope and pray that we will never have another day like that.

P.S. This story does not cover every single tornado touchdown, but consider it an overview. I would love to hear from any of you that have additional stories about this great event. My e-mail address is:

jb.elliott@theweathercompany.com

Whatever I receive I will share with the rest of our weather group, including Bill Murray who is our Weather Company historian. He has already compiled a vast amount of information.

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