WATER VALLEY – It’s been 25 years since a pair of killers cut the heart out of the city.
Twin tornados roared through Water Valley on April 21, 1984, leaving seven people dead and around 75 injured. Along with the human toll, property damage was estimated as high as $24 million.
Killed in the storm were Lucille Turner, Levi Benson, Jennie Tolbert, Margaret Mitchell, James E. Allen, Ruby Burden, and Aileen Black.
Herald Editor Ed Shearer III reported that the double-barreled twister struck just before 5:30 Saturday evening touching down near Prospect Drive and Dupuy Street. The storm moved northeasterly doing great damage on Panola, Wagner, Herring, Church, Price, Clay and Market Streets.
The tornados sliced across the First Baptist Church complex destroying a large portion of the sanctuary and education buildings. Rev. Guy Reedy said that he clung to door handles as the wind lifted him off his feet.
The twisters focused a good deal of fury on North Central Street where six businesses were demolished including Jim Buford’s service station, the Southland service station, Mr. Quik convenience store, C. W. White’s self-service station and office complex, Jones Supermarket, and Boyd’s Western Auto.
The storm moved on across Boyd and Jones Streets before leaving Water Valley and struck again in the Jumper’s Chapel community. The path of the storm was up to a quarter-mile wide in areas. Shearer wrote that damage occurred on either side of the main track as the funnels came down and went up again.
The city had been under a tornado warning since 4:50 p.m. that Saturday and both city and county law enforcement officers were stationed at different points watching for a funnel cloud. The siren, located behind city hall, was sounded twice for five minutes.
Police Chief John Watson, stationed at the National Guard Armory on Wise, saw the twin funnels approaching and ordered the siren blown again. It sounded for less than three minutes before power was knocked out.
After the tornado, electricity was quickly restored to the south end of town, including the hospital which was little affected by the storm. In the meantime, volunteers were digging through the rubble of Jones Supermarket looking for victims. Ten to 20 people were reported to have been in the store when the violent winds hit.
Hospital Administrator James Ivy told reporters that 83 patients had been admitted as a result of the disaster. The hospital usually had no more than 25 patients.
Dr. Joe Walker went to the hospital after hearing a tornado was headed toward town. “I immediately hit the disaster plan,” Dr. Walker said.
Doctors were treating patients on the floors and in the halls of the hospital, he added. Patients were coming in by the pickup truck load. “One woman was brought in on a kitchen door,” Dr. Walker said.
The wounded began arriving at the hospital immediately after the tornado hit and continued steadily until after 9:30 p.m. The hospital normally had only two ambulances, but that number increased to 15 after neighboring hospitals sent them to help.
Former mayor Hamric Henry gave a videotape interview in July of 1991 describing what he saw during the storm and in the aftermath. It was the second time he had to deal with a deadly tornado. He drove an ambulance to the O’tuckalofa community after a tornado struck there in March of 1942 killing 15.
Henry said that he was at home on Panola Street and had gotten a call from the police chief warning him that a storm might be approaching. A few minutes later he was told that Fire Chief Bob Ward was out near Enid Dam and could see it coming toward town.
“It was real quiet in Water Valley and we just had the one siren back behind city hall. They blew it and in that it was so quiet and still they could hear it all over the city,” Henry said.
“I was at my house looking out the window and I could see the trees waving in the breeze. I didn’t think it was much. But, I could hear strange noises. Things hitting the house. It lasted just a few minutes and it was over. So, I walked to the front door and when I got out on the front porch I could hear people screaming,” he continued.
Henry said that looked up Panola Street and all the big trees were blown down. When he turned to go back inside he said that two front windows had been blown out and there was debris in the living room. “I told Dorothy that I had to get up to the police station and when I got back I would try to put some pasteboard over these windows.”
“We had had flooding rain. But, Dorothy, bless her heart, she knew more about these things than I did. She had gone into the living room and pulled the shades down and put thumbtacks in them. That had kept the rain out of the house.”
“When I got to the police station it was just bedlam up there,” Henry remembered. “I didn’t get back home until four or five o’clock the next morning. We needed some maps of the city. So I left the police station and went to city hall.”
Henry said that he got the maps and was headed back to the police station when he saw highway patrol cars and lots of blue lights near the Main Street and Blackmur Drive intersection
“I stepped out of the car and there was a man walking up to me with a black raincoat on. Thank goodness I recognized him as Governor Allain. I said, ‘oh my goodness, Governor, what are you doing here,” said Henry.
Gov. Bill Allain told Henry that he had come to help. “Well, I almost cried. I could have hugged him I was so glad to see him. There was the governor of the state of Mississippi come to help us. If there was anytime that we needed him, it was at that time.”
Henry told the governor that there was a meeting planned for the National Guard armory at 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning to make plans. Allain said he would be there.
“He was a great help to us because he brought some of his people with him that had been through tornados before. “They knew how to advise us,” Henry added.
The former mayor said that over the next few days he was at city hall with people lined up “from the back door to the creek waiting to see me.” According to Henry these were people who had lost their homes and had lost loved ones. “They had all kinds of trouble and I guess they didn’t know where to come except to the mayor’s office.”
“I was doing my best to do what I had to do. All of our aldermen came to work and they were out in the field doing everything they could to help. And, I was in the office.”
He said that people would ask where the mayor was. “They would say he is over at the office politicking,” Henry said with a grin.
“But, we went through that tornado and the city came out still a viable town.”