Recorded Northeast Mississippi tornadoes have killed 387
By Eileen Bailey
She skipped into town ready to play. And play she did.
She lifted houses off their foundations, leveled homes and twisted trees for 13 city blocks in a residential section of Aberdeen. She killed one person, injured 55 and caused more than $1 million in damage.
While this Feb. 16, 1956, tornado was not one of the deadliest tornadoes to strike Northeast Mississippi, it was a tornado that some Aberdeen residents are not likely to forget.
Aberdeen Police Chief Brent Coleman, who was 17 at the time of the tornado, and Waldell Sims, who was 47, remember the horrors of the twister, which had wind speeds between 158 to 206 mph.
Sims had just walked in the door of his Matubba Street home when he heard the roar.
"It was coming down Canal Street and moved my house off the blocks," Sims said.
It traveled through town, killing one man east of Sims' home.
"It roared like a freight train," Sims said. "Before you could bat your eyes it was there. Then it was gone."
The Sims family huddled on the floor of the home while debris flew through windows. Sims, now 88, said all the homes on either side of his were destroyed.
Across town, a young Coleman and his friends took cover in Tony's Cafe, where they had been hanging out.
"I'll never forget how still it was. All during the day it had been hot and the wind had been blowing but by the late afternoon everything had gotten deadly still," Coleman said. "Then we heard the roar and knew it was a tornado because all of the trains were on the east side of town. There were none on the west side."
After the storm had passed, he said, he heard the sound of a horn. Thinking someone needed help, Coleman and his friends ran several blocks toward the noise. What they found was that a tree had fallen on a car, causing the horn to sound.
Then they heard the cry for help.
They discovered an older woman injured by a piece of wood driven into her chest. She survived her injuries, Coleman said.
The Aberdeen twister was one of the 46 recorded tornadoes to hit Northeast Mississippi in the last 130 years, causing an estimated 387 deaths. The injured number in the thousands and damage estimates in the millions from these storms.
The largest portion of Northeast Mississippi's death toll came in 1936, when one of the nation's deadliest storms killed 216 people.
Norris Caldwell, who was 6 and lived on Robins Street at the time, said he remembers the night well.
"We had been staying up late watching my parents playing a new game called 'Monopoly' when my grandfather, Mr. Crane, heard a noise. He got up and looked out the door. He must of seen it because he cried, 'Tornado.' And as he shut the door the wind blew it back open and knocked him back," Caldwell said.
There was no warning at all, he said.
"The house shook like a box of matches," he said.
Caldwell remembers his mother talking about how hot and muggy the day had been.
During the storm, a large oak tree fell on the home. Caldwell said many people credited that fallen tree for protecting the home and preventing any deaths in his family.
The Caldwell family was among the lucky ones. According to historical data, the official death count was 216. The 1,000-yard-wide tornado hit Tupelo at about 8:55 p.m., traveling 15 miles through central Lee County. It went on to cause a total of 233 deaths in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
The tornado, which missed the business district, leveled more than 200 homes on the west side of town. Entire families were killed, including 13 in one family.
The number of deaths could have been more, according to historical information in "Significant tornadoes from 1680-1991" by Thomas P. Grazulis. Since only the names of the white injured were published in newspapers, it is not possible to determine how many in the black community were injured.
About 150 boxcars were brought in to provide temporary housing. A movie theater was turned into a hospital, with the popcorn machine used to sterilize instruments. Damage was estimated at more than $3 million.
Statistics show that storms like this make up only 4 to 5 percent of the area's tornadoes and only 1 to 2 percent throughout the country, said one weather expert.
The peak months for tornadoes in Mississippi are March, April and May.
Tornadoes can occur at anytime, but weather conditions are right during those three spring months for tornadoes, said John White, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis. A second season for tornadoes in Northeast Mississippi is in November and December.
During these months, the warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico clashes with cold air. The jet stream also is strong over the area.
In Northeast Mississippi, White said, most of the tornadoes occur in the late afternoon or evening hours.
Most of the storms, especially the more severe storms, travel in a southwest to northeast pattern.
Tornadoes are ranked based on the wind speed, which is estimated by the damage left behind. These rankings are rough estimates.
The Fujita scale ranks tornadoes from an F0 tornado, which has wind speeds of 40 to 72 mph, to an F5 tornado, with wind speeds of 261 to 318 mph.
Deaths have occurred even with the smallest of storms. The most recent tornado occurred March 1 when a Randolph man was killed during an F1 tornado. The winds in the tornado were estimated to be between 73 and 112 mph, strong enough to overturn a mobile home.
A tornado can travel many miles during its life span, such as the one which touched down in Mississippi April 20, 1920. It traveled 130 miles, killing 88 people and injuring 700 in four Mississippi counties and four Alabama counties.
The tornado started near Starkville and traveled in a northeast pattern through Cedar Bluff in West Point, where 10 people were killed. When it hit Aberdeen, 22 people were killed. Five more were killed in the county before it moved into Alabama.
One of the survivors of that tornado was Buck Smith, 84, of Aberdeen.
Smith, who was 7 at the time, said his family lived outside of Aberdeen then, but heard the tornado as it moved through the area.
When it was over, his brother took him to Aberdeen in a wagon to look at the damage. Sage grass was driven into pine trees like quills on a porcupine, he said. A hog farm was destroyed and numerous animals were injured and killed.
"I remember seeing one hog running around with a two-by-four in its side," Smith said.
Even though he never saw the actual tornado, Smith said he will never forget the horror of the destruction.
"From that day on a storm or cloud would scare a little boy to death," he said.