The Great March 21, 1932 Disaster

| March 20, 2009 @ 11:07 am | 13 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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  1. Suzie in Argo says:

    That was very sobering…and we worry about whether it will snow or not. I for one am very thankful for the technology today that gives us sufficient warning to take cover. I don’t care if it is a rotating storm in the air or tornado on the ground, I want to know about it. Those people would have loved to have more warning and we say we get too many and that alot of those are false. I can’t fathom anyone who reads this to become immune or desensitized to the warnings we receive today. If you’re ever involved in one you won’t ever become desensitized to the warnings. Had there been the technology that we have today then, many lives would have been saved that day. Thanks for posting that JB.

  2. jstevehicks says:

    I have read that the east Winston County community of Helicon (near the Cullman county line) was destroyed in 1932 by a tornado. Probably this event?

  3. James (Tuscaloosa) says:

    Interesting and I’m looking forward to hearing more about this event. SOON, I hope to get my amateur radio License, Gosh, I’ve been working on and off for nearly a year now.

    I am connecting my GPS to an old laptop I have lying around doing nothing, but I am also planning on installing a Mobile phone card. I can use it to railfan; but also I want to install GRLevel3 radar not only for local bad weather around here, but also for travel purposes. Also, so I can pick James and the crew when 3340 goes to live streaming; and to read the blogs and twitter as it happens.

  4. Don (Northport) says:

    My mother was a young girl on March 21, 1932. She well remembers standing on the back steps of her family’s house near Capital Park in Downtown Tuscaloosa that afternoon and watching the tornado cross the Black Warrior River and slam into Northport. She has described to me numerous times how the twister was black and filled with debris and how scary the roar was. An eerie silence for several minutes after the tornado had passed was broken by what she says seemed to be an endless parade of fire trucks, police cars, ambulances and private vehicles heading down River Hill with sirens and horns blaring as they crossed the old river drawbridge from Tuscaloosa into Northport.

    To this day my mother says she can still see in her mind’s eye the stream of vehicles heading back across the river to Druid City Hospital and other makeshift facilities. The image of flatbed trucks and pickups speeding back up River Hill filled with bleeding and screaming storm victims was burned into her eight year old mind.

    She says the response lasted for hours and men in her neighborhood walked across the bridge to help look for victims into the night. As night fell she remembers how unusual it was to look down into Northport and see only flashlights, car lights and flashing red emergency lights in an area where street lights and the soft glow from windows of homes had shown the night before.

    One of her aunts, a nurse at Bryce Hospital, was called in to treat overflow patients who were taken to the medical portion of the state mental hospital next to the University of Alabama campus.

    Northport and Tuscaloosa were small communities back then and she says most people knew or were related to someone who was injured of killed by the deadly storm. It is an event that still comes to her mind every time spring rolls around.

  5. geneva usrey says:

    My daddy rehearsed stories today of the storm in 1932 when he was only 7yrs. but obviously etched in his mind. He has told us these stories all our life and has always insisted we go to the storm shelter when we were growing up.He remebers his Granny and Grandpa Morris being blown away but surviving the storm. one of the things he told was about the churn of milk on the table with a cloth and a plate on the top, to keep anything out of the milk. When the storm was over it was found sitting on the peddle of an old singer sewing machine,with the cloth and plate still on it and the milk still in the churn. Also his uncle and 2 others just huddled together and held on and was found in a field still alive and holding on to each other. The wind had merely picked the up in one place and sat them down in another.The chimney had fallen on his granny and she was in the hospital, he said she was as black as the smutt for weeks from bruises, andnever acted the same. (Probably from head trauma, and or emotional trauma as well.)My daddy is now 86 and has a sister who is 93 she remembers even more than he does.

  6. Carol (Sylacauga) says:

    This tornado hit Sylacauga also. I’ve heard stories about it all my life as my mother and her sisters and parents were all in the hall and my grandfather was trying to hold the doors closed as the roof of the house was torn off. My mother said she looked up and saw sky. (she was 7)It was about 7 in the evening and the power was out. They were trying to light candles for supper and the candles would not stay lit. My grandfather had left the lights on in the car and told my aunt who was 14 at the time to go turn them off. She often tells me she never disobeyed her father, but when she got to the front door, the rain was so intense she turned around. He then went to the door, took one look and took them all into the hall. My father lost an aunt in the tornado and that same uncle lost his first wife from a tornado in Sylacauga in 1917. My family lived across from the elementary school that was destroyed. In fact, a water fountain ended up in their yard which is still there today. Since the school was destroyed, they still had it, in different places all over town.

  7. Collin Petty says:

    I spent a good portion of my youth growing up adjacent to a hill which an elderly local referred to as “Stumps Hill.” I clearly remember him recalling the outbreak that pulverized Union Grove and how that particular hill got its name when all of the trees were sheared off just above ground level, thus the locals called it “Stumps Hill” for years. Even today, *none* of the trees or structures in that area are more than 80 years old, so we can only imagine how devestating that storm must have been and how wide the damage path was.

  8. Beth Wingate says:

    Here is another article from Clay County. It puts the death toll at around 700, including those who died later from injuries.

    I’m a genealogist. http://www.mydeeproots.com

    I’ve come across quite a bit of info on the 1932 Tornado in my research.
    ~beth

  9. Beth Wingate says:

    Sorry….forgot to post the Clay County link

    http://files.usgwarchives.net/al/clay/newspapers/tornado.txt

  10. Fran Danley says:

    My father was a student at Alabama when the storms hit. He said Northport looked like a war zone.

  11. Angie McDaniel says:

    I live in the Union Grove area in Chilton Co. I purchased a book from a 92 year old preacher back in 92 he helped clean up and collect all the bodies. He wrote about all that happened that day. A woman and her 2 girls were found where my house is now. Randall Chandler that owns Chandler Drugs in clanton also has a lot of info. On these storms.

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