Civil Rights / Cold War

1952 & 1974 Tornadoes

Using radar developed during World War II, radar operators had discovered they could identify weather capable of developing thunderstorms and/or tornadoes. 

But federal officials had banned them from informing the public due to a fear of causing a panic. As the death counts from large tornadoes continued to rise, that ban was lifted, but it wasn’t until 1953 that the U.S. Weather Bureau established the Severe Local Storms Center, known as SELS. So on March 21, 1952, even though most Tennesseans had radios and some had televisions, there was no warning system to let them know about the storms coming into the state from Missouri and Arkansas. These storms along with ones that entered the state from Mississippi would turn out to be the third most damaging storms in Tennessee recorded history.

It was an F-4 tornado that crossed the Mississippi River into Dyer, Lake, and Obion counties. It continued as an F-3 into Gibson and Obion counties, killing Highway Patrolman Sergeant Oliver Williamson, whose vehicle was picked up and thrown from the road. Other storms ravaged Lauderdale County.  Another deadly F-4 tornado moved northward from Mississippi into Fayette County and later into Madison, Gibson, and Carroll counties.  

The greatest damage, however, was done in Hardeman, Chester, Henderson, and Decatur counties where 41 people were killed and 158 injured with nearly $3.5 million in damages. The storms later passed into Hickman County killing three people there. Total losses for the March 21 and 22 storms in Tennessee were 84 killed and 516 injured.

Hearn Family of Chester County

The 1952 tornadoes had a devastating effect on the Hearn family of Chester County. David Hearn, who was five years old at the time, said he and his 10 year-old-sister’s bedrooms were at the front of the house, while his parents’ bedroom, Ford and Anna Belle, were at the back. 

The tornado picked the house up off its foundation and put it down in the back of the yard. David and his sister were thrown in the front yard, his parents in the back. His sister, Linda Gale, picked him up and took him to the barn where she put him in a crib full of husks. She then ran back outside to look for their parents. Unfortunately the house had landed on top of them. The mother died immediately; the father a couple of hours later at the hospital. 

Super Tornadoes 1974

Tennessee was also part of the “Super Tornadoes” outbreak of 1974 which was the most violent tornado outbreak in recorded U.S. history with at least 30 F-4/F-5 tornadoes. 

In Tennessee, there was an F-4 that went through White, Putnam, Overton, Pickett, and Fentress counties on April 3. Lesser tornadoes hit Cannon, DeKalb, Warren, Van Buren, Overton, Bradley, Polk, and McMinn counties. 

Out of the suspected 148 tornadoes in the U.S. that day, some 30 went through East and Middle Tennessee taking 30 lives and leaving 148 people injured.



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