Tornado Outbreak of 1952
The tornado season of 1952 was a particularly eventful one throughout the state. Twenty-six tornadoes were reported to have touched down in Arkansas from January to November that year. While twenty-six is well below the modern average of about thirty-nine tornadoes per year in Arkansas, an unusually large number of these storms in 1952 were EF-3 and stronger on the Enhanced Fujita Scale used to rate the strength of tornadoes (the ratings go from EF-0 to EF-5). Of the twenty-six tornadoes in this outbreak, at least five were rated EF-4. Among these tornadoes, the most deadly and most widely reported was the March 21, 1952, EF-4 tornado that struck White County on March 21. Over the course of the year, 112 people lost their lives, and 731 were injured by tornadoes in Arkansas.
Two tornadoes were recorded in the state during the month of January, both on January 26 and both of EF-1 intensity, the first occurring northeast of Almyra (Arkansas County) and the second in Stuttgart (Arkansas County). No fatalities or injuries were reported.
Only one tornado was recorded in February, an EF-2 occurring on February 13 to the northeast of Poplar Corner (Mississippi County). Five injuries were recorded, but no fatalities.
The largest number of tornadoes in this outbreak occurred in March, a month that saw fifty people killed and 325 injured by tornadoes.
One tornado was recorded on March 3, a weak EF-1 tornado striking southwest of Booneville (Logan County), causing minimal damage and no injuries. This was followed by fifteen tornadoes on March 21.
The first tornado recorded in the March 21 outbreak occurred at 2:40 p.m. near Center Point (Howard County), and the storms continued until the final tornado lifted after 7:00 p.m. north of Blytheville (Mississippi County). Of the fifteen tornadoes reported, one was of unknown intensity, two were significant EF-2s, seven were severe EF-3s, and five were devastating EF-4s. Nationwide, the March 21 outbreak remains the fourth largest in terms of number of EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes reported, only surpassed by the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak, the 1974 Super Outbreak, and the 2011 Super Outbreak. The event affected twelve counties, mostly in central and northeastern Arkansas. White and Woodruff counties bore the brunt of the storms. White County was left with fifty fatalities and 325 injuries after one tornado, while Woodruff County’s two tornadoes left twenty-nine dead and 180 injured.
The White County tornado struck the cities of Kensett (White County), Judsonia (White County), and Bald Knob (White County). The two Woodruff County tornadoes struck near Georgetown (White County) and Cotton Plant (Woodruff County). Due to the early sunsets of spring and the power outage that occurred shortly before it struck, the tornado that then hit Judsonia was all but invisible to residents there. Furthering confusion, of those who heard the tornado, many assumed it was a train along the tracks that bisected the town. Most of the injured from both counties were transported to hospitals in Searcy (White County). The hospitals were soon overwhelmed, and ambulances were rerouted, with the injured being taken to the dorms at Harding College (now Harding University), as well as the local Legion Hut, the armory, and private residences. Doctors arrived in Searcy from three neighboring counties, and many citizens volunteered to treat the injured.
The aftermath of the EF-4 tornado was likened to the war-torn cities of France and Germany following World War II. At 4 a.m., the National Guard arrived in Judsonia. Later on Saturday morning, the Red Cross and Salvation Army reached town. The Red Cross set up a headquarters in the Elliott Hotel and the Salvation Army in the Fulton Hollingsworth house at the corner of Washington and Jackson streets. By that evening, the National Guard implemented a policy requiring written permission to enter the city limits of Judsonia in order to repel sightseers.
On Saturday afternoon, Governor Sidney McMath, Senators John McClellan and William Fulbright, and Congressman Wilbur Mills visited the area to survey the damage. By Monday, the national press had arrived to tell the story to the nation. The Red Cross made $663,433 in relief grants to White County, and the Salvation Army spent its entire district budget in Judsonia. Contributions were sent in from around the nation. The prisoners at the Tucker correctional facility in Jefferson County collected $24.50 to donate; thirty-two cents was sent from a twelve-year-old boy in Gary, Indiana, to help replace the “books and toys” of a local child; and a large contribution was made from the city of Warren (Bradley County), which had been struck by a tornado in 1949. The damage in Judsonia and Bald Knob was estimated to be at over $2 million.
Compared to the previous month, April was much less eventful. Only two tornadoes were recorded, both on April 22. Both were EF-1 tornadoes, the first causing minimal damage north of Magnolia (Columbia County) and the second occurring southwest of Cave City (Sharp and Independence counties).
Two tornadoes were recorded in the state in June. The first was an EF-2 occurring on June 4 in Lawrence County, near the campus of Williams Baptist College (now Williams Baptist University). It caused no injuries, no fatalities, and no recorded damage. The second was an EF-0 that briefly touched down northeast of Scott (Pulaski and Lonoke counties) on June 18.
Two tornadoes was recorded statewide in the month of July. Both were EF-2 and struck the eastern edge of Texarkana (Miller County) on July 16, causing no fatalities or injuries.
The state saw a lull in tornado activity during the late summer and early fall, which was interrupted only by a single tornado on November 17. This storm, an EF-2, left a path stretching from northwest of Potter (Polk County) to east-northeast of Waldron (Scott County). This storm caused two injuries, which were the first recorded tornado-related injuries in the state since the storms of March 21.
For additional information:
Davis, Paula. “Tornado of 1952.” Rivers and Roads and Points in Between 22 (1995): 17–19.
Forister, Tammy. “A Day to Remember.” White County Heritage 21 (1983): 1–2.
Orr, W. E. That’s Judsonia. Judsonia, AR: White County Printing Company, 1957.
“Tornadoes on March 21, 1952.” Tornado History Project. http://www.tornadohistoryproject.com/tornado/1952/3/21 (accessed November 10, 2020).
“Unsung Heroes of the Disaster of 1952.” Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine, April 13, 1952, p. 5.
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