A tornado consists of a violently rotating column of air extending from a cumulonimbus cloud to the ground, and a strong one can cause much death and destruction. Tornadoes associated with frontal activity are fairly common each spring in the southern U.S., but several unusually powerful tornadoes struck the region in the spring of 1936.
A vast storm system raced across the southeastern states on April 5-6, 1936, spawning at least seventeen destructive tornadoes, with much loss of life as well as property damage. The storms also produced widespread destructive flooding across the region.
The greatest tornado damage and loss of life occurred in Tupelo, Mississippi, and Gainesville, Georgia, but tornadoes also struck Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina. Total deaths for this outbreak reached at least 450: the Tupelo tornado was the fourth deadliest (with an estimated 216 dead) – and the Gainesville tornado the fifth deadliest (with an estimated 203 dead) – in U.S. history.
The Enhanced Fujita Scale (which replaced the earlier Fujita Scale in February 2007) categorizes tornadoes by degree of damage indicators and associates that damage with estimated wind speeds for three-second gusts. Although the scale is normally applied to recent tornado events, it can be retroactively applied to historical tornadoes if relevant primary sources survive to enable judging the degree of damage – see the Tornado Project Online. The Gainesville tornado of April 6 would rate as an EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. (The Tupelo tornado on April 5 would rate even worse at EF5.)
An unusually powerful tornado struck Gainesville at the beginning of the work day on Monday, April 6, 1936. According to eyewitness accounts, two funnels came in from the west or southwest, converging near downtown to cause extensive damage as they swept to the east across the business and governmental heart of the city as well as several residential areas. (Some accounts even suggest that a third funnel was involved!)
Shortly after the tornado struck, Eastern Air Lines pilots Lee Wiley and Tommie Tompkins took off from Atlanta in a small Pitcairn Airwing and circled above Gainesville to take aerial photographs of the disaster. Hall County Library Historic Photograph Collection image hchp0154 shows the heavily damaged downtown area, looking toward the north. Note the prominent Dixie Hunt Hotel in the center, with the public square just beyond; the large Palmour Hardware fire appears on the right.
Hall County Library Historic Photograph Collection image hchp0162 provides another aerial view, but this time looking toward the southeast. The public square appears above and slightly to the right of center; the white federal building complex stands prominently on the left; and massive smoke plumes rise from fires at Pruitt-Barrett (left) and Palmour Hardware (right).
Eyewitness accounts differ as to exactly when the tornado struck Gainesville, but the remarkable image hchp0511 from the Hall County Library Historic Photograph Collection depicts a clock mounted on the Citizens Bank Building – the clock’s hands, frozen in position at 8:28, presumably document the time of the strike at that particular location.