1936 was destined to be the most unusual year in a decade of unusual weather. Four states hit record high temperatures above 120 degrees and 11 more set all-time record high temperatures that still hold today. In fact, in spite of the theories of "global warming" 1936 still holds the record for the highest national average temperature since 1869. It was a time when government officials worried that St. Louis would be the capital of a vast inland desert, courtesy of "The Dust Bowl."
During the winter of 1935-36 bone-chilling cold covered much of the nation. St. Louis would go for 20 days without an above-zero reading. In Minnesota the average statewide temperature between January 22 and January 26 was -20.3F. The average temperature in the state of North Dakota never rose above 0F for 18 consecutive days, and an all-time state record low of -60F was recorded at Parshall on February 16, 1936. Devils Lake dropped below freezing on November 27, 1935, and did not rise above it until March 1, 1936, a period of 96 days. According to the United States Geological Service (USGS) this is the coldest weather ever in the 48 contiguous states.
The Heat is on
The Summer of 1936 was completely different. In Steele, North Dakota the temperature hit 121° F on July 6, 1936. Then the heat wave moved east and settled in. Detroit, Michigan, witnessed seven consecutive days of 100°F+ heat equal the total number of 100°F days since record-keeping began. Much of the nation was short of rain (Ludlow SD had just 2.89 inches that year).
Tornadoes require massive amounts of energy to form. This energy is created when a warm air mass and cool air mass collide. When unusually cold winter air met unusually warm spring air over Arkansas late in March, 1936, a system of storms developed that would leave in its wake two of the worst weather-related disasters in United States history.
Gainesville, Georgia was a struggling community in 1936. Its manufacturing base had been eroded by the Great Depression. The boll weevil, drought, and crop failure also contributed to the plight of this small town. Farmers looking for jobs drove unemployment levels to record highs. Weather was not on many people's minds.
In the downtown area on the morning of April 6, 1936 about 200 people reported for work at the Cooper Pants factory. People on the way to the courthouse and kids on the way to school began to fill the square. At the Pacolet Mills building in New Holland, northeast of Gainesville, the morning shift began.
During the evening of April 5, 1936, Tupelo, Mississippi took a glancing blow from an F5 tornado. Although the storm missed the downtown area it still took more than 216 lives and left over 700 people injured. Property loss from the strike is estimated at 3 million dollars. Since African-Americans were not included in either dead or injured totals, the toll in human lives was probably significantly higher. Still, by itself, this tornado ranks as the fourth most destructive storm based on the number of dead.
As the front moved east storms spawned in Mississippi at Coffeeville (12 dead), Booneville and Auburn (4 dead), and in Alabama at Elkwood (4 dead) and Red Bay (7 dead). Additionally tornadoes were reported in Columbia, Tennessee (5 dead) and LaCrosse, Arkansas (4 dead).
On April_6, 1936 at about 8:15 a.m. an F4 tornado landed in Hall County southwest of Gainesville and began to destroy homes and infrastructure as it moved northeast. A second funnel was spotted west of the city moving almost due east. At 8:27 the funnel paths met in downtown Gainesville, heading towards the Catholic Church on Spring Street. The edifice was spared when the combined tornadoes miraculously veered around the church, then returned to its original path, taking dead aim on the square in downtown Gainesville.
Sixty years after the event, then teenager John "Rudy" Rudolph described the scene,
We were talking about how dark it had become. My friends and I stopped in front of a store in downtown when the owner came out and told us to take cover. I really didn't understand what he meant. It was daytime, but the sky was as dark as night. We'd never seen anything like it...just before it struck there was a sound so loud that I felt in my body... When I woke up, I couldn't move my leg. I waited for what seemed like hours for someone to come and help me...my leg was broken (from falling debris).
Gainesville courthouse after the tornado
The tornado caused a fire in the collapsed multi-story building that housed the Cooper Pants factory, killing some 70 workers (depending on whose report, this number can be as high as 125). School children who sought shelter in a downtown department store died when the building collapsed. A third storm, which skirted the city a few minutes before the double tornado, headed northeast doing additional destruction around and to the Pacolet Mills building in New Holland.
The Gainesville storms, spawned from the same weather system that created the Tupelo tornado, would cause more extensive physical damage ($13 million) but the cost in human lives lost (203) would be below the earlier storm. More than 1600 people would be injured in Gainesville and throughout Hall County and more than 750 houses were damaged or destroyed. Most experts agree that the total number of lives lost in these storms was significantly higher.
Gainesville Square with Cooper Pants factory and Palmour Hardware fire in background
Clean-up efforts began immediately. Rangers from the Georgia National Forest (now the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest) brought men to help clean up and two-way radios so residents could communicate with friends and family outside the area. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was on his way from Washington D. C. to Warm Springs, Georgia, stopped in Gainesville three days after the storm and witnessed the destruction (FDR in Gainesville, 1936). The devastation was mind-numbing.
From his special car President Roosevelt saw buildings torn from the earth, some deposited in a random fashion across the landscape. Others, especially buildings made from wood, ended up in unrecognizable chucks. However, the town began to rebuild immediately. Money from the government was on the way shortly after Roosevelt spoke. Plans were quickly made to build a better downtown.
Two years later the President would return to the city to praise these Georgians for their hard work in restoring Gainesville (FDR's Brother's Keeper Speech).