Our Greatest Weather Disaster

| March 21, 2007 @ 8:49 pm | 4 Replies

NOTE: This is a story about Alabama’s greatest tornado outbreak three weeks before I was born. It happened on March 21, 1932. It overshadowed another outbreak of tornadoes only six days later across Central Alabama. That resulted in the first known photograph of a tornado on the ground in Alabama. It was published in the Sunday Birmingham News. For years, I had a copy of that photograph, but I lost it.

Bill Murray has done a lot of research recently on the 1932 event. He is snowed under with other work at the moment, so look for a series of stories from him in the coming days.


I spent an entire day in the 1960s at the downtown Public Library researching old microfilm reels of the Birmingham Age-Herald, The Birmingham News and The Birmingham Post. In later years, the Age-Herald merged with the old Birmingham Post to become to become the Birmingham Post Herald. I found much good information in those microfilms. This story should not be considered all-inclusive. This is a general picture.

Two waves of strong to violent tornadoes occurred on March 21, 1932 starting shortly after 3:00 p.m. in Marengo County and sweeping NE and east. Another round of tornadoes occurred after dark and some places got hit twice. Let’s use these figures for totals for the day.

300 fatalities
3,000 injuries

The official death toll was 268 with 1,874 injured. I believe that may be low. I think the 300 fatalities and 3,000 injuries would be closer to correct.

Between 3:00 and 3:30 p.m., a violent tornado touched down in Marengo County in West Alabama killing 36 people and injuring 136. In the eastern part of the county, SE of Demopolis, after the storm there was the horrible finding of a dead baby, a dead pig and a horse collar all stuck deeply in a hollow tree stump.

About one-half hour later at 4:01 p.m., a powerful tornado moved across the NW part of Tuscaloosa, then crossed the Black Warrior River into the heart of Northport. A clock at the Tuscaloosa Country Club stopped at 4:01 p.m. 38 people were killed and 250 were injured. Medical facilities were overwhelmed and some University of Alabama buildings were pressed into service as a temporary medical facility.

Another wave of tornadoes started after dark, mostly in the central and north sections of the state. The Columbiana area of Shelby County was struck twice–in the afternoon and again in the evening. Severe damage occurred as far south as Coosa County in the Rockford area.

One of the powerful tornadoes cut a 60-mile path across Perry, Bibb, Chilton, Shelby and Coosa Counties killing 49 people. The Latham family in Chilton County, lost seven members to the tornado. The father heard the tornado coming, went to the front door and looked out and excitedly said, “It’s a cyclone.” Those were the last words he ever said. His body was carried about two miles. His wife was found buried up to her neck in freshly plowed up soil in a nearby field. That tornado struck around 6:30 p.m. just after supper.

I received an e-mail this evening from a lady in the Birmingham area who had two uncles killed. Her grandfather, grandmother and another uncle were all seriously injured. Her grandparents could not go to their children’s funerals because they were hospitalized. Her uncle is still living in Jemison and enjoys talking about the storm, but he is very afraid of bad weather until this day–75 years later. At the time of the tornado, he was an 8-year-old boy, but he remembers the storm well.

The tornadoes on that afternoon and evening left destruction in Pickens, Hale, Tuscaloosa, Lauderdale, Marengo, Perry, Greene, Cullman, Morgan, Marshall, Bibb, Chilton, Shelby, Coosa, Talladega, Lawrence, Winston, Clay, Randolph, Madison and Jackson Counties. At least 32 people died in small communities across Jackson County. The Sylacauga area was also hard hit.

Let’s look at a few individual cases.

It was an F4 tornado with a path length of 75 miles when it continued into Marion County, Tennessee. There were 38 fatalities and 500 injuries.

Another F4 cutting a 45-mile long path with 13 fatalities and 160 injuries.

An F3 tornado cut a 10-mile path killing 8 and injuring 25. It occurred at 7:30 p.m.

An F2 tornado cut a 5-mile path killing 4 and injuring 10.

An F4 tornado touched down at 7:10 p.m. and cut a 25-mile path killing 41 persons and injuring 325. One person died at Grant’s Quarry where 35 homes were damaged or destroyed. At least 29 people died in Sylacauga with 11 more in surrounding areas. 600 homes were damaged or destroyed.

A 7:00 p.m. tornado, F2, cut a 10-mile path killing 1 and injuring 1. Several homes and Greensboro High School had major roof damage.

An F3 cut a 20-mile path killing 10 and injuring 30. Near the Laneville community, 10 to 20 people died as numerous tenant houses were demolished.

A powerful F4 tornado cut a 60-mile long path killing 49 people and injuring 150. It was the most deadly tornado of the event. 21 people were killed in Perry County with 7 in one family. 9 died near Lawley as the Cox community was leveled. 21 were killed in Jemison and Union Grove.

An F4, that touched down at 4:30 p.m., cut a 25-mile path killing 18 and injuring 100. It moved from 4 miles south of Cullman to 3 miles west of Arab. Rural homes were demolished in Phelan, Bolti, Berlin and Fairview. Many people were injured in a box factory south of Berlin. One home was leveled killing 6 people. A teacher was killed in Fairview. All of the deaths were in Cullman County where 74 homes were wiped out.

Above is just a spot check of some of the tornadoes and, as we mentioned, not an all-inclusive list.

Remember, in 1932 there were virtually no radio stations, definitely no TV, telephones were extremely scarce, especially in rural Alabama. The governor of the state made a lengthy tour in his Model T Ford.

I often wonder how much the death toll would have lessened, if there had been wall-to-wall TV coverage, weather radio and weather radar. There was no such thing as radar to detect weather back in those days. Citizens were literally at the mercy of the elements.

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