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Tornado Map

By the Numbers

Began: Around 5:31 PM just west of the Mississippi River in E. Madison Parish
Reached Downtown: Around 5:35 PM
Ended: Around 5:40 PM NNE of Vicksburg, E of Washington Street/Old U.S. 61
Deaths: 38
Injuries: 270
Path length: 7 miles
Maximum path width: 500 yards
People left homeless: 1,200
Cost of damage in 1953 Dollars: $25 million
Estimated adjusted for inflation cost in 2013 Dollars: Over $200 million

Tornado Summary

Warm December Saturday Afternoon

December 5th fell on a Saturday in 1953. Weather conditions were unseasonably warm for that time of year, with temperatures beginning the day in the lower 50s, about 10 to 15 degrees above normal. Clouds filled most of the sky, but there were occasional peeks of sun. There was a breezy and occasionally gusty southeasterly wind. Sustained winds were measured as high as 17 miles per hour before noon at the U.S. Weather Bureau office in downtown Vicksburg, which was located in the old courthouse and post office building at the corner of Crawford and Monroe streets at the time.

Throughout the day, many Vicksburg residents were out enjoying the relatively warm early December weather. Christmas shopping was a popular activity at the numerous downtown shops and stores. Outside of the stores, Christmas decorations lined the streets. Periodic light rain showers wet the streets during the late morning and early afternoon hours. The showers weren't enough to preempt an afternoon parade that was held downtown. The parade was a prelude to a charity football game to be held that night as a benefit for Leo Puckett, a talented Jett High School football player. Puckett sustained a spinal injury during a September football game, leaving him paralyzed. Several members of the community wanted to hold the benefit to help pay for his medical bills. Unfortunately, the game would not take place that night.

'They had always said Vicksburg would never have a tornado because of the river'

During the day, a warm front lifted northward across the region, with temperatures rising to 72 by mid-afternoon. In addition, the dewpoint reading at the Vicksburg Municipal Airport rose from the 40's that morning to almost 70 behind the warm front. In the increasingly moist and unstable airmass south of the front, thunderstorms developed across central Louisiana during the day, moving northeastward. In the upper atmosphere, wind shear was also strengthening, making conditions more favorable for tornadoes. In fact, the U.S. Weather Bureau's Severe Local Storms Unit issued a severe weather bulletin at 1:30 PM indicating that "tornado-producing conditions" would exist in an area between Tyler, Texas, Little Rock, Arkansas, Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Monroe, Louisiana. Sure enough, around 4 PM a tornado developed north of Ruston, Louisiana and tracked 8 miles through the town of Spearsville, Louisiana, injuring 16. Beginning a pattern that would continue into the early evening, another tornado developed just a bit farther east about an hour later. This storm left a 60 mile long path of damage that extended from northeast of Monroe, Louisiana near Spencer, Louisiana into southeast Arkansas. You can read more about this storm by clicking the "Beekman-Montrose Tornado" link at the top of this section.

Then around 5:30 PM, the pattern repeated once again. A storm moving northeastward across eastern Madison Parish produced a tornado just west of the Mississippi River. Because it occurred in a sparsely-populated area, there is some uncertainty with respect to the exact location where the tornado first touched down. However, some accounts of the storm do indicate that damage occurred just west of the river in Louisiana.

As longtime Vicksburg resident Marie Renaud said before the 60th anniversary of the storm, "They had always said Vicksburg would never have a tornado because of the river." Unfortunately, many Vicksburg residents found out the hard way that this belief was merely a falsehood. The tornado crossed over the Mississippi River bridge, moving across the river to the southern tip of DeSoto Island, where it downed several trees. As the tornado crossed the Yazoo Diversion Canal, it met one of its first victims, a fisherman. His car was later found on Levee Street, and days later his boat was found along the Mississippi River near Port Gibson, but sadly he was never found.

 

Direct Hit

Not only did the tornado survive the trip across the Mississippi River, it apparently become stronger as it moved through the industrial area along Levee Street southwest of downtown. Significant damage occurred along the Vicksburg railroad and at businesses such as the Union Compress and Warehouse Company, the Valley Gin, the Levee Street Foundry and Machine Works, the Vicksburg Transfer Company, and the P.P. Williams Company. The tornado then began to move uphill from the river toward the downtown area, demolishing several small shacks as it moved across Pearl Street, Veto Street, and Mulberry Street on its way into the central business district.

Residents in downtown Vicksburg were caught completely off guard by the tornado as it began to plow into the heart of town. Many heard the storm coming just mere moments before it arrived, and made a last ditch attempt to run into the back of buildings or basements for safety. As the tornado moved across South Street, one eyewitness says the Farmer's Tractor Supply Company "just exploded right in front of my face". The company's owner lost his life. In the same block, several businesses were hit along Washington Street, most notably Mississippi Hardware and Ben Warren's Clothing Store. Those two buildings almost completely collapsed, trapping several individuals including many who were seeking shelter in the basement at Mississippi Hardware. Two lives were lost at Ben Warren's Clothing Store, including a daughter of the owner.

Crossing Crawford Street, severe damage continued to occur at the numerous businesses along Washington Street including the Sports Shop, Palermo's Mens Shop, and at the S.H. Kress Dime Store. Two died at Palermo's, including a customer and the son of the owner. A block to the east, the tornado damaged St. Paul Catholic Church. Though the historic building was not leveled by the tornado, the structure was later determined to be unsound and had to be rebuilt. The tornado continued across Clay Street causing damage at First National Bank, the Jefferson Davis Hotel, and Hotel Vicksburg. At the Strand Theatre, there was a partial wall and roof collapse. However, it was another downtown theatre that would serve as the setting for a tragedy.

Tragedy at a Birthday Party

Stephanie Mitchell's 10th birthday was on December 5, 1953, and her sister would also have a birthday in the coming days. To celebrate the occasion, the girls' parents, George and Lillian Mitchell, took their daughters along with a group of friends to the Saenger Theatre to see the movie "Botany Bay" starring Alan Ladd, James Mason, and Patricia Medina. After dropping off some of the partygoers, George returned home while Lillian, who was seven months pregnant at the time, stayed at the theatre.

The Saenger, which was located at 1209 Walnut Street at that time, was directly in the center of the tornado's path. Before the tornado hit, the power flickered and eventually went off. Then light suddenly reappeared in the large theatre as a wall collapsed, bringing the screen down along with it. The ceiling collapsed as well, trapping several people under their seats and debris. Sadly five children died at this location, each under the age of 10. Included in that count were two sisters.

On the bright side, there were also many survivors, including the Mitchell family. The three women were initially trapped for several hours before being rescued. From the destroyed theatre, Lillian Mitchell was taken to the maternity ward at Mercy Hospital. There, just three days later, she gave birth to a third daughter.

Tornado Continues Northeast

The deadly twister continued north across China Street, wrecking the Keith Williams Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, then northward across Grove Street, where another fatality occurred. The storm crossed Monroe Street clipping the Old Courthouse before hitting the Happyland Nursery, where two toddlers lost their lives. Yet another fatality occurred as the tornado crossed Cherry Street near the intersection with Main Street.

At this point, the Joe Wing Sing grocery store was demolished about two blocks outside of the tornado's main damage path at the corner of Openwood Street and Farmer Street. It is believed this may have been a satellite tornado which developed on the periphery of the main cyclone.

Farther north, tremendous damage occurred in a residential area on the north side of the city. Many homes along Adams Street, Randolph Street, Fayette Street, Jefferson Street, Locust Street, and the surrounding areas were completely leveled. At least three deaths occurred in this neighborhood, including a mother and daughter.

The tornado then moved into the western portion of the Vicksburg National Military Park. As it crossed Confederate Avenue, considerable damage occurred from the Fort Hill area eastward to the observation tower that once stood on that side of the park. Residences were then damaged along Union Avenue, also in the park. As the tornado exited the park, it moved into the Waltersville community. Along Sherman Avenue, 17 homes and a church were destroyed. A man died at this location, possibly the last life taken by the storm as it moved northward into a more rural wooded area and dissipated.

All told, 38 lives were lost in the tornado and at least 270 more were injured along the seven mile path of devastation. Around 25 million dollars of damage were done by the storm. Victims were trapped in several downtown buildings for hours, and some into the following day. Downtown Vicksburg would never look the same again.

Recovery

In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, emergency personnel, the Mississippi National Guard, the Red Cross, private citizens, and many others rushed to the scene of the devastation to help find survivors. Even after the tornado, winds remained gusty with occasional showers moving through the downtown area, hampering relief efforts to some extent. A cold front pushed through the Vicksburg area shortly before midnight, with winds shifting to the west and temperatures steadily falling to the upper 40s by Sunday morning. Winds remained gusty out of the northwest, making it feel even colder to the numerous relief workers. It became even colder by Monday December 7th, which began with temperatures in the middle 30s and a brisk southerly wind making it feel more like around 30 degrees.

Word of the tornado spread somewhat slowly, as there weren't as many news outlets at the time. News did reach the Vicksburg Municipal Airport relatively quickly, as a special observation at 5:40 PM noted "UNCNFMD TORNADO REPORTED NW VKS." The Jackson Weather Bureau first received word about 20 to 30 minutes after it occurred. The observation form from the Hawkins Field office noted at 5:58 PM "State Highway Patrol reports unconfirmed tornado at Vicksburg Miss. moving NE. Damage unknown. Power out at present." A updated note from 6:10 PM reads "Miss Highway Patrol confirms tornado at Vicksburg Miss. Several buildings down on Clay Street. Power and telephone lines down. Also no report available on injuries."

A Pulitzer-Worthy Paper

In the wake of the tornado, utilities in the city of Vicksburg were severely disrupted. The most important news organization serving the area was not immune to this problem. The Vicksburg Evening Post was located at the intersection of South and Cherry streets, just a few blocks away from the tornado. The lack of communication infrastructure forced reporters to walk around downtown and to the police station and hospitals to gather the details of the situation. When they returned, they made notes and wrote by candlelight, according to city editor Charles Faulk. A gas outage required employees to gather charcoal to fire press plates to print the paper. There was also no running water to develop film, which required a reporter to fill pails with rain water. These efforts paid off, and Sunday morning edition was successfully printed. For their efforts, the paper was rewarded with a Pulitzer prize in May 1954.

 

Memorials

River City Plaza Memorial

On the 50th anniversary of the tornado, the Vicksburg-Warren Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Vicksburg class dedicated plaques - the one seen above and another with a copy of the December 6th edition of Vicksburg's Sunday Post-Herald. These plaques are on display at the River City Plaza at the corner of Washington and Crawford streets.
Flood Wall Mural

Several panels of the flood wall along the Yazoo River at downtown Vicksburg are decorated with historical scenes from Vicksburg's past. One of these panels is themed "The 1953 Vicksburg Tornado" and was sponsored by the Pat Cashman family and dedicated in April 2006. The mural depicts the devastation in the downtown area and commemorates the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of the Vicksburg Sunday Post-Herald. The Vicksburg floodwall murals can be seen along Levee Street between Clay Street and Grove Street on the Vicksburg riverfront.

 

Acknowledgements

We are very appreciative of the support of the following individuals and groups, without whom this page would not have been possible.

  • John Elfer, Warren County Emergency Management Agency director
  • Gordon Cotton, historian
  • Buford Evans
  • Peggy Dudley and the staff at the Lower Mississippi River Museum
  • Jennifer Harper and all of the fine folks at the Vicksburg Senior Center
  • Bubba Bolm, Jordan Rushing, and the staff of the Old Courthouse Museum
  • The Vicksburg Post
  • Joe Loviza, former Vicksburg mayor
  • Warren County-Vicksburg Public Library

 


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