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Remembering the Massive 1840 Natchez, Miss., Tornado

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By WeatherBug Meteorologist, Andrew Rosenthal
May 6, 2010

Tornadoes are sometimes referred to as "nature`s vacuum cleaner," as they have the power to wipe clean their path. Few tornadoes, however, have changed the course of a city`s history like the one that struck Natchez, Miss., on May 7, 1840. The center of Mississippi`s cotton exportation industry at the time, Natchez was devastated by this massive storm that leveled nearly every building in the city and neighboring Vidalia, La. To this day, the tornado remains one of the strongest and deadliest single tornadoes in U.S. history.

The storm was part of a system that struck the Deep South that day. It approached Natchez from the southwest about 1 p.m. with a thunderstorm that brought plenty of lightning and wind, but as this was nothing unusual in the Deep South, residents had no reason for alarm. There was no official weather service to issue warnings that dangerous storms were on their way, as the U.S. Weather Bureau - - the predecessor to the National Weather Service - - was not formed until 1870. The only mention of any stormy weather was a few word-of-mouth reports among those travelling on the river of "some gusty winds" near New Orleans as the storms moved through that morning. Thus, residents were unprepared for the fury that awaited them.

Around 2 p.m., as residents were sitting down to their afternoon meal, the storm formed a tornado just across the Mississippi River from Natchez, and rapidly spun northward along the river`s banks toward the city. As the storm slammed Natchez, it had reached a width that was later estimated to be two miles wide. Buildings were blown apart as if barrels of gunpowder had been ignited, trees were split and carried away, and both of the town`s churches were destroyed. Along the landing at the riverside, boats, stores, and the Mississippi Cotton Press cotton gin were leveled. Of an estimated 60 boats that had been at the landing before the storm, six remained afloat by storm`s end. Newspaper reports after the storm reported that Natchez and all surrounding towns on both sides of the Mississippi River were flattened.

The death toll from the storm is listed at 317 people, with 269 of the deaths attributed to drowning on the river. This would place the tornado as the second deadliest single tornado in U.S. history, only to the 1925 "Tri-State" twister. However, the death toll was probably much higher. In the South at that time, slave deaths were not usually counted in death counts, and it is believed that thousands of slaves were working on nearby plantations when the tornado struck. In addition, numerous bodies were never recovered following the storm, and the only death accounting came from the heart of Natchez, with no communication available to nearby towns.

From the damage reports of this storm, it is believed that the storm would be rated as a top-of-the-scale EF-5, packing winds well in excess of 300 mph. It probably leveled everything in its path. The storm was reported to have been so strong that men who survived had their clothing torn off of them. Trees were reported to have the moisture sucked out of the leaves, leaving them "crisped" and withered.

Of course, it came long before the Fujita Scale was created, so no definite categorization can be applied. Estimates of the damage were placed at $5 million (1840 dollars - - approximately $100 million today), but this number is probably extremely low. Including the quantity of goods lost from the warehouses, including cotton, pork, butter and vegetables, and the agricultural losses from crops destroyed in the tornado, damage estimates would probably be four to eight times higher. Were a storm this strong to hit Natchez today, damage would likely be near $1 billion.

Prior to the storm, Natchez`s position on the lower Mississippi River made it a center for the cotton trade for the interior Deep South north of New Orleans. Its location had made it the starting point for many early settlers heading toward Texas and the Southwest. Although Natchez would rebuild, it would never reach the heights seen prior to the tornado. This is partly due to the fact that the city`s bluffs provided a strategic spot during the Civil War, and numerous skirmishes took place near the city.

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