Remembering the March 1932 tornado outbreak 91 years later

Published 11:18 am Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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From Staff Reports

Alabama is no stranger to tornadoes and has experienced many of them over the years, including some devastating ones within the last few months. But the 1932 Deep South tornado outbreak stands out from rest as it caused catastrophic damage across the Midwestern and southern United States, including Marengo County, which experienced widespread devastation and many deaths.

According to reports from the time, the outbreak spawned around 38 tornadoes, killing over 330 people and injuring 2,141. Tornadoes touched down in Mississippi, Illinois, and South Carolina, but Alabama was hit the hardest, with 268 fatalities. 

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Currently, the intensity of tornados is ranked using the Enhanced Fujita, or EF scale, with EF0 being the weakest, and EF5 the strongest. The According to the National Weather Service, the severity of a tornado is determined by a list of damage indicators, with an EF scale assigned the storm after trained NWS personnel survey the damage. The NWS is the only federal agency with authority to assign an EF scale to a tornado. The EF scale was implemented in 2007 and replaced the original Fujita Scale, which had been used since 1971 to rate tornados.

The 1932 outbreak is believed to have produced ten violent tornadoes, which are tornadoes rated as EF4 or EF5. Eight of those violent tornadoes occurred in Alabama. The NWS estimates wind speeds of an EF4 tornado to be between 166 – 200 mph, while an EF5 has estimated winds of over 200 mph.

The first tornadoes touched down at 3:30 p.m. on March 21, 1932, in the Demopolis, Linden, and Faunsdale areas of West/Central Alabama. Thirty-six people were reported dead after the outbreak subsided. Alongside the deaths, 136 people were injured, and 180 homes were destroyed.

An EF2 tornado was tracked from southwest of Linden to Faunsdale in Marengo and Perry Counties. Faunsdale was one of the first towns to be hit by a tornado touching down on U.S. Hwy 80 in northeast Marengo County, east of Demopolis. The tornado’s path was estimated to be 20 miles long and 200 yards wide.

There were three fatalities, two in northern Linden, and 15 others were injured before the tornado struck Faunsdale, where a third person died. This was the first of two tornadoes to strike the Faunsdale area during the tornado outbreak, but only this one passed directly through the town. It was reported the two deaths in Linden were people killed while trying to find shelter, while the third was a person killed by a falling chimney.

An EF3 tornado reportedly tracked from west of Faunsdale to west of Marion in Perry County, and Marengo and Hale County, caused ten fatalities. The second tornado, which may have reached EF4 intensity, struck near Faunsdale and was seen by residents who were cleaning up debris from the first storm. It destroyed temporary housing on a plantation and swept away a well-built farmhouse. The number of dead unofficially ranged from 12 to 20, with 30 additional injuries. The path of the storm was recorded as 20 miles long and 100 yards wide and dissipated at Scotts Station.

An EF3 tornado in Demopolis caused three fatalities, and fifteen homes were either damaged or destroyed in the city’s southeast section. Nine others were injured. The tornado’s path was 7 miles long and 125 yards wide.

Losses from three tornadoes in Marengo County totaled $400,000, which would total $8,783,649 in today’s dollars. Losses across the state totaled $4.34 million, which equals $86 million in 2023.