1953 Vicksburg Tornado Path
On December 5, 1953, at 1:30 pm the US Weather bureau issued a sever weather wariing for Tyler, Texas, Little Rock, AK, Monroe, LA and Clarkdale, MS. At 5:35 pm a tornado hit Vicksburg, MS. There was no "track" associated witht he tornado, it "appeared" from the southwest at the Mississippi River Bridge and traveled north along the Yazoo Diversion Canal before unleashing its fury on downtown Vicksburg.The path is shown in red in the above graphic.There had long been a theory that no tornado would ever damage downtown Vicksburg because of it location on the bluff and hill east of the river. The belief was that a tornado approaching from the southwest, the expected direction would hit the river and then the bluffs and would be forced up and jump over the city. This theory was destroyed along with the city on that fateful day.
This little writeups provides some Oakes history associated with the events of that day.
For the Oakes family, the day was dedicated to preparation for a benefit football game dedicated to Leo Puckett, a Jett High School football player who had suffered a spine injury on September 21, 1953, during a game against Satartia,. The injury left him paralyzed for the remainder of his life. He died in 1984 the coaches from the county and city had organized the game.. It was an All-Star game that pitted players from Redwood and Carr Central High Schools against players from Culkin and Jett High Schools. There was resentment among the Redwood players as it was apparent from their practice session with Carr Central that the Carr Central coach was going to play primarily his players.
Below are some newspaper clippings about the game provided by Donald Oakes.
Below is a detailed map of the city and the tornado's path.
The number 3 grey box at the corner of South and Washington Streets is The Valley department store and the location of Betty Terrell Oakes when the tornado hit. The red x marks the location of Mel Oakes.
Mel Oakes' story: As a senior, he was at the home of his girl friend, Florence Williams, on Grove Steet waiting to leave to go to the field to dress out for the game. They were finishing supper with the Williams' family when a loud roar was heard. It resembled a very loud train. Racing out the door, they could see smoke from fires along the path of the tornado. As it was winter, people had fires in their homes and some ignited. Walking down Grove Street toward the tornado's path, they could see the damage to houses and trees.. The total extent of the damage was not known to them umtil much later that night. It was probably announced on the radio that the game had been canceled. He called home to let his mather know he was ok and would stay the night with the Williams family. Driving home the next morning he witnessed the terrible damage done to the homes around First East street and beyond.
Floyd Oakes' story: He was at the family home in Kings. His account is here:
A benefit football game was set for the Saturday night on which the storm hit to raise money for Leo Puckett, a Jett High School player who had been injured while playing in a previous game. Twelve of the players were chosen from the Redwood team to play in the game. Melvin was already in Vicksburg at his girlfriend’s house but Earl Martin and I were at our house waiting on Coach Dorman to come by to get us.
We were in the Oakes Auto Parts office and Earl was on the the phone talking to one of his girlfriends. I was standing at the door when I heard a loud rumbling sound. Just then Dad, Mom, Donald and Eleanor drove up to the front of the house and got out of the car. The noise was loud and I heard Dad tell everyone to get to the cellar. I hollered at Earl to come on and we headed for the cellar. Just as we all got inside the sound died out. A few minutes later we heard a car horn blowing and looked out and saw Coach in the driveway. Earl I hopped into the car and we headed for Vicksburg.
When we entered town we saw some fires over toward Levee Street, so Coach turned up the hill to Cherry Street and on to the Carr Central School where the players and coaches were to gather for the game. When we got to the school all the lights were out and only a few boys were standing around. After a short wait we walked out to the street and a man came by and told us the the town had been hit by a tornado and help was need at the police station. We all headed to the station and upon arriving could see quite a bit of damage.
We were sent to the Saenger Theater to clear a path for the ambulance to get to the theater because there were lots of injuries. Coach went inside to work and we were told to start moving cars out of the way of the ambulance. We started rolling cars to the side and lots of gasoline had spilled into the street and was flowing downhill. I saw some people on sidewalk smoking and creating a fire hazard so I asked one of the older guys to go over and stop them. He did so and we continued to move cars until we had a clear path for the ambulance.
After we completed moving the cars we returned to the police station and were sent down on Washington Street to clear a path. There were lots of old bricks on the street that had fallen from the front of the buildings along the street. As we cleared away the bricks, we uncovered a car with a man inside who had been very badly crushed and who was deceased. I witnessed a few people looting items from a jewelry store window that was smashed.
We worked at this for about four hours and then back to the police station to see what else we could do to help. Because too many people were driving in to sightsee and were blocking the few open routes available, we were put on traffic control on Monroe Street by the old courthouse. The National Guard was supposed to relieve us when they could be mobilized. Earl and I directed traffic for several hours before we were relieved. We found pecans on the ground that had been spilled from an overturned truck so we snacked on some.
When the Guard arrived we headed to the police station once again. As we were passing Help Yourself Grocery we saw Reggie Ellis inside. Earl’s brother, Pete, had worked for Reggie at one time, so we went in to see if we could get a sandwich or something to eat. Reggie was in the process of making sandwiches and coffee to be taken to the Hotel Vicksburg where a command headquarters had been established. We helped with the food and coffee and then hauled it to the hotel and set it up on a table.
When we left the hotel, we walked by a small office that housed the Chamber of Commerce. I happened to glance in and saw a person dressed in Air Force blue that looked like my brother, Charles, who was an airman stationed in Texas. As I passed by I could not help thinking how much it looked like Charles, so I turned back and went inside, only to find out it was actually Brother Charles. Charles and his wife, Jo, were arriving in Vicksburg to spend Christmas with their families and were just crossing the Mississippi River bridge when the severe weather cau red, Charles took his wife to her mother’s house and came into town to see if he could help. After speaking briefly with Charles we told him we would find him when the National Guard or other authorities took over. We worked on the streets several more hours and then located Charles, who drove us home.
When I got up the next day, to go back to town to work, my mother would have no part of that. I guess she had had enough of worrying about us when we were gone the previous night. NOTES: Betty was on the 5th floor of the Valley Dry Goods store. She has her own story.
Mr. Dugan, Dad’s bookkeeper, was about to cross Washington Street at the Merchants Bank when the wind got so strong he had to step back into the clothing store that was located on that corner. The back of that building was blown out, but the front was not damaged, so Mr. Dugan was okay.
Coach worked all night at the Saenger Theater to rescue people and remove bodies where many were hurt and five died.
Betty Terrell Oakes' story: An F5 tornado struck my hometown of Vicksburg, M, on December 5, 1953, when I was 14 years old. I was at the Valley Dry Goods department store waiting for my dear friend, Vera McBroom, to get off work at 6 o’clock as I planned to spend the night with her. Vera had a temporary job for the Christmas season at The Valley and was working in the children’s department on the 5th floor (top floor) of the store.
A few minutes before the store was due to close, the clerks were busily counting money and straightening displays. Suddenly the lights went out, the building began swaying to and fro, and the windows blew out, throwing pieces of glass throughout the entire 5th floor. The very first thought that went through my mind was that the world was coming to an end. A man threw me on the floor and that frightened me even more. I later realized that the man, a Mr. Duggins who was the maintenance employee for the store, was trying to protect me from the flying glass.
The tornado ended almost as quickly as it had begun. Because there was no electricity, the lights were out and the elevator would not work. Mr. Duggins gathered everyone who was on the 5th floor and we cautiously felt our way down the five flights of stairs to the side entrance of the store, where Vera’s parents were anxiously waiting for us.
Because Mr. and Mrs. McBroom knew my parents would hear about the tornado, and would want to know that I was okay, they took me home. I was so traumatized that I could barely tell my parents what had happened. My dad left for Vicksburg to help with rescue and recovery and my mother slept with me, keeping her arms around me all night as I was shaking, perspiring, and talking in my sleep.Mr. and Mrs. McBroom got us out of Vicksburg so quickly that it was the next day before I knew about the devastation in our town and about the number of people who had died from this terrible tornado.
Donald Oakes' story : Margie, Donald and Eleanor Oakes were returning from Jackson that afternoon. As they approached Vicksburg along Clay street, they considered going downtown, maybe to look at Christmas decorations. At the last minute they decided to turn right and go home.
Arriving home they were met by Fred Oakes who yelled at them to get in the basement. This basement was under an unattached building behind the house he had bult for doing laundry and storage. The basement housed canning jars that Margie did each year. It was small and quite musky. Donald and Floyd report that while huddle there, they heard a sound that resembled a train. Once it passed they came out. There was no damage that they could see. The tornado had passed further east behind the hills that fronted their house.
Fred, Donald and Eleanor decided to drive to town and check out the damage. They came up First East and turned south on Cherry Street. From Cherry Street it is possible to overlook the city. They could see the destruction and decided to go home along North Washington Street.
Floyd and and Earl Martin were picked up by Coach Dorman and taken to town. See Floyd's story above.
This ia view of the intersection of Fayette and Jefferson street. Many of the homes were occupied byAftrican-American residents.
Mississippi Hardware on the northwest corner of Washington and South Streets. The Oakeses were regular customers. It was acress the street from The Valley Department store where Betty Oakes was when the tornado hit.
Here is link to a site dedicated to the event: 1953 Vicksburg Tornado