PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF 1949 CAPE GIRARDEAU TORNADO
By Jean Freeman
Cape Girardeau County Missouri Genealogy Trails
I was young, but I'll never forget that day. Mom, Dad and I were coming home from Doctor Ashley, Sr's office. Mom was pregnant with my brother and had to go see the doctor that day. We saw the cloud as we were coming down Maria Louise Lane and we made it home on West Rodney just in time to get in our garage that was built under our screened in porch. We watched the whole thing go by and it never even damaged anything in our yard except a few limbs and we were so close to it. What was so weird, is that after the tornado went through, we went in the backyard and a straw was embedded in the Maple tree and the straw wasn't even broken or bent.
I'll never forget the sky. First it was black and then when the funnel hit it was a pea green, mustardly yellow color and the funnel was awesome. It came down Gordonville Road and went through Arena Park, which at the time, had the city dump on the far end over to the side where the horse barn use to be. It's now the back entrance to the Fair. It picked up old ice boxes, washing machines (the wringer type-remember this was 1949), pieces of boards, metal and anything else that people dumped there. It just threw them around like they were pieces of paper.
NOTES FROM AREA PAPERS TRANSCRIBED BY LESLEY RINEY:
Cape Girardeau residents, stunned by the worst tornado in history of the city, prepared today for the sad task of burying the 21 persons who met death as a result of the devastating storm which swept into this southeast Missouri city of 20,000 early Saturday night.
Several funerals were scheduled for this afternoon and others will be buried tomorrow and Wednesday.
72 in Hospitals
Seventy-two persons remained in hospitals today, several of them in critical condition. Scores of others were treated by doctors for minor injuries. Volunteer workers have completed their search of the ruins and believe all persons have now been accounted for.
Work of rebuilding some of the 202 dwellings which were totally destroyed by the storm, has already started. Many more dwellings and some business establishments were damaged by the wind which caused property damage in excess of $3,000,000.
Business Area Closed
The 21 block area which bore the brunt of the storm, has been closed to sightseers. The state highway patrol and the National Guard, which took up patrol duty in the area soon after the storm hit, permit only those with urgent business in the stricken area to enter.
Guards Are Set Up
Police Judge Lee R. Friday, Red Cross information officer, said looting started soon after the tornado passed but that 200 guards were in the area within 30 minutes. Taxicabs were pressed into service as ambulances. Streets were so littered with fallen trees and debris, it was necessary to chop a path for the vehicles.
Garages Vanish In Air
Wooden garages vanished into the air and some 50 automobiles they sheltered were wrecked. Clothing hung crazily from treetops and many persons were left only the clothing they were wearing. The estimate of property damage was made by Mayor Walter M. Ford after a survey of the devastated area. The hardest hit sections were the subdivisions of Marble City Heights and Red Star in the northern part of Cape Girardeau. Most of the fatalities occurred in these sections.
Only Foundations Remain
The amazing thing was that the casualty toll was not much greater. Only the foundations of many homes remained. Scores of persons escaped serious injury by huddling in basements while their houses were reduced to splinters. Automobiles were hurled hundreds of feet. A 10,000 gallon empty gasoline storage tank was carried from Highway 61 to a point on a main thoroughfare a quarter of a mile away.
Whole groups of houses in three residential areas were completely destroyed, with piles of broken trees, furniture and buildings littering wide areas.
Warning of Tornado
Nearly everyone had some warning that the tornado was coming. Some saw a funnel-shaped cloud. Others reported the heavy black clouds were boiling over and over as the storm approached. The tornado cut a path averaging three blocks wide. It hit first on the west central edge of the city and extended for about four miles northeastward to the Mississippi river. Several business buildings were destroyed on Broadway Avenue, leading into the business district, but the main part of the business district was not hit.
Power Is Shut Off
Shelters and kitchens for the homeless were set up in the area, a high school and other buildings. Instructions were broadcast to rescue teams over radio station KFVS, and radio communications were set up. All power was shut off in the hard-hit, northern part of the city. Many power line poles were knocked down and power and telephone lines littered the streets.
The list of dead in the tornado which struck this city Saturday night follows:
The Rev. R. P. Basler, 70
The Rev G. Jackson Crowe, Middletown, Ohio
Jerome Foeste, 6
Mrs. Helen Frye
Peggy Judith Frye & daughter of Helen Frye
Mrs. Eva Hayes
--dley Hayes, grandson of Eva Hayes (looks like Rodley)
R.. L. Liley
Mrs. Bertha McCain
Mrs. Jewel Thorne
Parker Zimmerman, 70
Mrs. Ida Hahn
Mrs. Henry J. Gref
Hazel B. O'Bannon
The Rev. Truman Fulbright, 30, of Bessville.
--Source: The Maryville Daily Forum, 23 May 1949.