Sunday, November 25, 2012

The First Punch

Before dawn on Good Friday, March 21, the mammoth Easter 1913 storm system slammed the nation with its first knock-out blow...
Sensing something dreadfully wrong, A. L. Slaughter instantly and instinctively came fully awake. The clock read only 4 AM. Outside his bedroom window, brilliant moonlight from the setting nearly-full moon bathed his tree-lined yard and his neighbor’s house in Lower Peach Tree, a prosperous small southern town on a bluff overlooking the Alabama River, home to about 1,800 souls. But the wind was rising too fast. Chickens and other birds were frantically flapping and calling, the dogs yapping urgently. Moonlit clouds were deep and darkening to the southwest. Fearing the worst, Slaughter dressed hastily, keeping an eye on those roiling, building clouds, praying he would have time to shepherd his family downstairs to huddle in the cellar.
With a sickening roar like a speeding railroad train, a tornado 400 yards wide veered out of the dark southwest, splintering houses, uprooting and stripping bark from trees, reeling through Lower Peach Tree in a drunken S-shaped path that alternately destroyed warehouses on one side of a street and then the Baptist church on the other side. As the deafening tempest careered northeast, wailing from the bereaved and injured trapped in the wreckage pierced the pre-dawn sudden rain.

When the sun finally rose, its feeble rays illuminated the full scale of the tragedy. Mangled bodies of the Bryant family—even little Sadie—lay 100 to 150 yards from their house, smashed by flying timbers from their own home as the five were running for safety. In minutes, 27 vital people had been slain; 60 more lay injured. Miracles also happened:  young W. S. Irby Jr., his wife, and toddler were awakened by their house violently rocking; swept out a window, they landed in the chicken coop instants before their home collapsed around them. When rescuers pulled the clapboards and beams away from the chicken coop, all three emerged alive.
The Lower Peach Tree tornado of Good Friday, March 21, 1913, still ranks among Alabama’s top 15 deadliest over the past two centuries. It was one of nine twisters that churned across Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi that morning, altogether killing 48 and injuring 150.

It was also a harbinger of even worse to come.
All nine tornadoes were part of a mammoth Good Friday windstorm that swept the eastern U.S. from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, the first punch of what would become a calamity for a third of the nation. After more than a week of unusually high and sultry temperatures across the Midwest and eastern U.S.—reaching well into the 80s in the Ohio River Valley—an arctic high-pressure system swooped down from Canada, bringing hurricane-force winds and heavy sleet. In less than 12 hours across the Great Plains, temperatures plummeted up to 40 degrees. Sustained winds from that massive cold front reached 60 mph in Indianapolis, 66 miles per hour in Louisville, KY, 84 mph in Toledo, OH, 86 mph in Detroit, MI, and 90 mph in Buffalo, NY—all records; Toledo even recorded 1-minute powerful gusts of 100 mph.  Across the Midwest, the furious windstorm toppled brick chimneys, blew carriages off roads, uprooted trees, carried off fences, and unroofed buildings. Flying debris killed half a dozen people in several states.

The windstorm and accompanying sleet also blew down or pulled down overhead wires, cutting electric, telephone, and telegraph services. In northern Illinois and elsewhere, at least 5,500 poles of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and its subsidiary companies were uprooted or snapped like toothpicks, virtually shutting off Chicago from the rest of the world. In 1913, long-distance communication was dominated by the wirelines: telegraph and telephone. Radio was still a fledging technology (only a decade earlier, young electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi made history by sending and receiving the first transatlantic radio messages between U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and England’s King Edward VII); on the floor of Congress, Bell Telephone and Western Union were strongly defending their monopolies by resisting up-and-coming potential competition from wireless telegraphy and broadcasting.
At that time, main telegraph lines followed railroad tracks. The Pennsylvania Lines West of Pittsburgh—just one division of one railroad—reported at least 55 broken connections where telegraph poles had been downed or trees blown across wires. Even where wires were not cut, swaying poles swung wires to cross other wires, fouling signals so remaining connections were essentially useless. Thus, by Holy Saturday—a calm night graced by a total eclipse of the full moon—communications were silenced across the middle of the country.

That silence was deadly. The downed poles and wires—along with a lack of commercial radio—had two immediate and critical consequences. First, the U.S. Weather Bureau had little communication with the Midwest and none west of the Mississippi River, so it could not gather timely data about the unusual powerful weather system massing and spreading eastward from the Rockies. Second, there was almost no means for communicating timely weather warnings.
Thus, the arena was set for the second colossal punch of the nation’s most widespread natural disaster—just as families across the Great Plains and the Midwest were sitting down to what many innocently anticipated as a serene and joyful Easter dinner…

Next time:  ‘My Conception of Hell’

Caption to newspaper: The tragedy of the Lower Peach Tree tornado ran from top to bottom on the front page of the March 28, 1913 issue of The Alabamian. (Although the original death count given was 28, it was later revised downward to 27.)

Caption to photograph: The strength of the wind storm across the eastern U.S. is clear from this catastrophic damage to telephone and telegraph poles; photograph appeared in the special May 1913 "Flood Edition" of the Bell Telephone News. 

Selected references
Bell Telephone News.Vol. 2, no. 10. Flood Edition. May 1913.
Garrett, C. W. (compiler), Pennsylvania Lines West of Pittsburgh: A History of the Flood of March 1913. Pennsylvania Co., 1913.

Grazulis, Thomas P., Significant Tornadoes, 1880-1989. St. Johnsbury, VT: Environmental Films, 1991. Classic and fascinating two-volume reference detailing virtually every U.S. tornado F2 and greater for more than a century. Grazulis now runs The Tornado Project.
The Heritage of Wilcox County, Alabama, Clanton, AL: Heritage Publishing Consultants, Inc. and Walsworth Publishing Company, 2002.

Monthly Weather Review, vol. 41, No. 3, March 1913.
With thanks to the late historian Craig B. Waff, who photocopied March and April 1913 newspaper articles for me about the Lower Peach Tree tornado from five local Alabama newspapers on microfilm (The Clarke County Democrat, The South Alabamian, The Thomasville Echo, Wilcox Banner, and the Wilcox Progressive Era) while he was on business in Birmingham. Thanks also to ASSNE editor Spence Blakely for helpful comments on the manuscript.

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