News & History

HISTORY MINUTE: Historic tornadoes in Arkansas

By KENNETH BRIDGES | For The Arkadelphian

With springtime, Arkansans have long looked with trepidation to rising storm clouds or sudden shifts in winds. In recent days, tornadoes again brought tragedy to the state with damage in the Little Rock area and across Central Arkansas. While Arkansas is considered on the edge of the notorious Tornado Alley, the intensity and fury of these storms have not spared the people of the state.

Tornadoes are powerful, compact storms with swirling winds of up to 300 miles per hour. It is these intense winds in the more powerful tornadoes that produce the more unusual stories of straw being flung into trees intact or cars or even trains being lifted up and carried long distances. Most have weak winds and never touch the ground, but they can intensify suddenly and without warning. Some tornadoes have been reported as much as a mile wide and can travel over a hundred miles before dissipating. Some have been reported to be so wide and so powerful that they have actually parted the Mississippi River as they crossed.

While tornadoes most often occur on late afternoons in spring, they can occur at any time of year and any time of day. The largest tornado outbreak in recorded history in Arkansas was January 17, 1999, when twelve tornadoes formed in Northeast Arkansas, resulting in only minor injuries. One man died in Leachville near Jonesboro in a tornado in December 2021.

One of the earliest recorded Arkansas tornadoes occurred in Fort Smith on January 11, 1898. The storm struck at 11:15 PM while most of the town slept, unaware of the danger approaching them, and no way to warn anyone.  Fifty-five people died in the tornado, with 113 injured.  On June 5, 1916, Heber Springs was wrecked by a tornado that left twenty-five dead and more than fifty homes destroyed.  On May 9, 1927, the town of Victoria in eastern Union County was all but destroyed by a tornado that left thirty dead.  Here, the town rebuilt and renamed their community “Strong” as a show of spirit.

Other storms came and wreaked their terrible toll: the January 3, 1949, tornado destroyed 700 homes in Warren and killed 55; the tornado of March 21, 1952, left 112 dead across the state, including 30 in Judsonia, 10 in Bald Knob, and another 29 in Cotton Plant; Greenwood was wrecked on April 19, 1968, by the tornado that killed 14; thirty-five died in Jonesboro in the horrors of the May 15, 1968, tornado; while six died in West Memphis on December 14, 1987.  The heartbreaking list could go on.

Since the end of World War II, technological advances have steadily improved understanding of how and when tornadoes form.  Use of radar combined with observations of wind, humidity, and air pressure greatly advanced weather forecasting techniques.  Looking at the success of Air Force weathermen in issuing a tornado watch in 1948 to save lives, prompted the warning system to be adopted everywhere.

In a tornado watch, meteorologists warn area residents that conditions could produce a tornado.  With a tornado warning, residents are alerted that a tornado has been sighted in the area and residents should take cover, preferably in a basement, storm shelter, or in a secure room on the lowest floor of a building, such as a closet or a bathroom away from windows.

By the late 1980s, extensive research into tornadoes and new radar systems prompted the National Weather Service to establish a system of Doppler radar towers to monitor the weather.  By the mid-1990s, a network of 100 WSR-88D Doppler radar sites had been set up across the nation, carefully scanning each storm and relaying that information to the media, to the public, and to government agencies.  Better computer systems allowed forecasters to scan these storms for rotation that would indicate a tornado forming.  Meteorologists can now have a warning of up to 15 minutes that a tornado is forming.  Because of these developments and better storm shelters, fatalities from tornadoes in Arkansas have fallen more than 90% since 1952.  Tornadoes, however, are still extremely dangerous and residents should pay careful attention to the weather when tornado watches are announced.

In spite of our advances in technology and more sophisticated warning systems, we are still at the mercy of nature.  With each storm, neighbors would always come together and rebuild, determined not to let disaster be the end.  The outpouring of support in the aftermath of these terrible storms through the years show that spirit can be stronger than any storm.

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