Remembering the 1973 Jonesboro, Arkansas, Tornado

Jonesboro High School was in the direct path of the 1973 tornado.

photo courtesy The Jonesboro Sun

As everyone focuses their attention on the devastating storm that swept across the Oklahoma City suburbs a few days ago, let's pause for a moment to recognize that this Memorial Day weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Jonesboro Tornado, one of the worst storms in the history of Arkansas.

Just a half-hour after midnight on May 27, 1973, a series of three massive twisters — the largest with a funnel cloud almost a mile wide — swept completely across the southern portion of this city, just about an hour northwest of Memphis. Within a few minutes, the damage was done, with the powerful winds erasing entire neighborhoods. The tornado roared through homes, the town's commercial district, and the Jonesboro High School complex, skirting the campus of Arkansas State University. Two major shopping centers and three other schools were heavily damaged.

When it was finally over, the good news was that only three people were dead. The bad news is that almost 300 citizens were seriously injured, many homes were completely gone, if not wrecked beyond repair, and city officials later calculated the tornado had inflicted more than $60 million damage on their town. That was measured in 1973 dollars, too.

Here's how local reporters described it: "Descriptions of sheer terror abounded throughout Jonesboro when survivors began coming out of their homes after the storm's fury had abated. Some had been watching the late show on television when the power went off, throwing their homes into complete darkness. Others awoke from an uneasy sleep to hear the terrible roar of wind and deafening crashes of thunder. Others were driving through the black night when they felt their vehicles swerve with the merciless rush of wind. Hell had come to Jonesboro."

What made this storm particularly horrifying was the timing. First of all, it came in the middle of the night, so there was no visible evidence of its impending arrival. And even though meteorologists had been following the storm on radar, their systems were fairly crude compared to the storm-tracking equipment available today, with the result being that by the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late. An official tornado warning for Jonesboro was finally issued for 12:55 a.m. — almost a quarter-hour after the twister touched down! And besides, in those innocent, pre-Internet, pre-Twitter, pre-smart-phone days, a warning did no good when — hard to imagine but it's true — most Jonesboro TV and radio stations went off the air at midnight. The approaching winds had knocked out power to many areas anyway. Most people only knew of the tornado when it landed on top of them.

It could have been much worse, of course. "The miracle of the 1973 storm was that only three persons lost their lives," wrote Mike Overall, city editor of The Jonesboro Sun. "If the storm had struck just a few hours earlier, it would have caught hundreds of shoppers in the Carraway Road area, which was pounded with savage fury. And, everyone shudders to think what would have happened if the twisters had hit during school hours. Nevertheless, the fact that so many lived was a miracle in itself."

There were miracles among the tragedies. One family rushed to get all their children to safety in a central hallway of their home. Just as the mother reached a bedroom where their 2-month-old son lay in his crib, the winds blew their house in. Within seconds, the baby's room was simply ... gone. You can imagine the horror as the family pulled itself from the rubble and began a frantic search for their child. That's when a neighbor heard a strange sound coming from the creek behind his house. When he investigated, he found the smashed remains of a baby crib lying on the banks — with the little boy still sleeping inside it, unharmed except for a tiny cut on his hand.

Today, very little remains of the 40-year-old disaster, and Jonesboro quickly rebuilt. As a result of what the newspaper called "the storm's insane fury," Jonesboro High School  was bulldozed and replaced with more modern, storm-resistant buildings. And here's an odd thing: One of the roads leading into the new campus is called "Hurricane Drive."  Hurricane??

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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