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On This Day in 1953, Deadly Tornado Strikes Vicksburg

5 Dec 2016, 6:35 pm

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The tornado claimed 38 lives and injured at least 270 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.


Story Source & Image: National Weather Service Jackson, Mississippi

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