Remembering A Red Letter Day in Alabama Weather History

| March 21, 2009 @ 7:00 am | 10 Replies

Sunday, March 20, 1932 marked the arrival of the first day of spring. That Sunday was Palm Sunday, and the weather in Alabama couldn’t have been finer. People took to the highways and golf links to enjoy a day of escape from the crushing economic news of the depression. But signs of change were already on the horizon and the next day would go down in the record books.

As Birmingham’s Chief Weatherman, Edgar Horton, made his way out to his instrument shelter at the Weather Bureau Office in Fountain Heights to take his morning observations on March 21, 1932, he knew that the weather was way too warm.

The high the day before had soared all the way to 80F.

The morning air had a warm feel for March, thick and humid, a little sticky. The mercury at 7 a.m. read 62F, a full 18 degrees above normal. Clouds were low, racing from the south. The bright new greens, yellows and lavenders of spring looked muted against the purple and gray backdrop. A southerly breeze was blowing at 12 mph. It was raining lightly.

Horton copied the weather reports flowing in over his teletypewriter, meticulously plotting the coded data on a map. A powerful surface low was near Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Horton knew that the conditions were ripe for severe weather. He knew it was tornado weather, but that word was forbidden in Weather Bureau forecasts.

He made his forecast: “Thundershowers Monday night, then turning colder.” Tuesday would be cloudy and colder.

Mr. Horton couldn’t possibly envision what Mother Nature was going to throw at Alabama that fateful day.

Tornadoes touched down near Demopolis at midafternoon, followed by others near Linden and Faunsdale.

Just after 4 p.m., a major tornado struck Northport, killing 37 people. A short time later, Cullman County came under attack, with a tornado that killed 18 people around Phelan, Bolti, Berlin and Fairview.

The deadliest tornado of the day touched down in Perry County, and roared into Chilton County. It killed 49 people. About 5:10 p.m., Columbiana in Shelby County was hit hard.

Meanwhile, to the southwest, a second Chilton County tornado was paralleling the earlier one. This one would kill another 31 people.

Around sunset, even as people were cleaning up from the first tornado of the day near Faunsdale, they watched in disbelief as another tornado roared by.

The terror continued into the evening hours. A twister touched down near Gantt’s Quarry and smashed into Sylacauga just after 7 p.m. killing 29. A second tornado passed close by the Marble City an hour later.

The final action of the deadly day happened in North Alabama where deadly tornadoes skipped across Lawrence and Morgan Counties, then hit Battle Ground in Cullman County. The final family of tornadoes hit Jackson County, killing 32 people.

More all weekend.

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About the Author ()

Bill Murray is the President of The Weather Factory. He is the site's official weather historian and a weekend forecaster. He also anchors the site's severe weather coverage. Bill Murray is the proud holder of National Weather Association Digital Seal #0001 @wxhistorian

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