On April 2, spring weather in the Mid-South took a decidedly malicious turn when a powerful storm spawning several F3 tornadoes swept across nearly 100 miles of rural countryside in northeast Arkansas, the Missouri Bootheel and west Tennessee.
The storm dropped its first F3 tornado (with wind speed of 158 to 206 miles per hour) at 5:17 that Sunday afternoon in Pocahontas, Ark. It passed about a mile north of Terry Gray's rice farm and seed company building in Delaplaine, Ark., leaving it untouched. “But it destroyed one of my secretaries' home, plus it knocked out about 30 grain bins, 10 houses and three or four farm shops.”
At 6:16 p.m., the same tornado, described by some as being about 40 acres wide, smashed through the small town of Marmaduke, Ark., destroying more than half of its buildings. “The most amazing thing was that no one around here was killed,” said Gray, who lives in Paragould, Ark., 10 miles south of Marmaduke.
The same tornado was still classified as an F3 when it entered the Missouri Bootheel, where it destroyed a cotton warehouse in Caruthersville, Mo., spilling bales of cotton into the open.
The storm system cleared the Mississippi River, and at around 8 p.m., it spawned an F3 tornado with winds approaching 200 miles per hour which struck the tiny communities of Millsfield, Tenn., and Newbern, Tenn., nestled in the cow-dotted hills north of Dyersburg, Tenn.
At Millsfield, the furious winds collapsed the roof of the fire department, destroyed a church and left nothing but concrete slabs where two homes had been. In Newbern, eight people died. The storm continued east, and another ferocious F3 tornado ripped through the town of Bradford, Tenn., killing six people, including four in one family. Still another F3 touched down in Bradford at about the same time killing two more people.
By the time the last tornado dissipated at 9:22 p.m. near McKenzie, Tenn., 25 people had lost their lives, one in Missouri and 24 in west Tennessee. Over 1,500 homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged.
“When the tornado hit the bluff on the Obion River and Hwy. 78, it appears like it never lifted,” said Tim Campbell, Extension agent for Dyer County, in west Tennessee, who witnessed the tornado's aftermath. “It damaged everything in the valleys as well as the hilltops. Normally, with these storms, you see a few trees down. This time, when it sat down, she didn't come up for a while.”
Campbell estimates total structural losses of over $1 million in Dyer County alone. A week after the storm, ranchers and volunteers were still trying to round up escaped livestock. Some cows wandered onto Hwy. 51, causing several accidents.
In Dyer County, at least 30 head of cattle died in the storm along with an estimated 50 horses. “One producer found a dozen or so head of cattle over in one corner of his field where the tornado had piled up them up.”
The storm's straight course across nearly 100 miles of land impacted a broad cross section of rural Americans, from ranchers and farmers to factory workers and retirees, hill folks and flatlanders.
Tragedy struck some worse than others. Bradford's only funeral director, Larry Taylor, lost his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren that Sunday evening. The four were buried April 6, in two caskets — Bradley Taylor was buried with his 3-year-old son, Kyle; his wife, Tanya with 5-year-old Tyce.
One resident of Dyer whose home was destroyed by the tornado had moved back to Tennessee from Florida eight months earlier, because, he said, “We went through (hurricanes) Ivan and Dennis and just didn't want to experience it anymore.”
In Millsfield, 10 days after the tornado nearly wiped the small community off the map, the sounds of chain saws have died down for a while, the skies are blue and the wind is surprisingly brisk on top of the ridge.
Along Millsfield Road, piles of tortured, splintered trees stripped of their leaves and much of their bark rise from the ground, snarled with the personal effects from two nearby destroyed homes — a pair of pajamas for a small child, a blue blanket, a mangled red bed frame.
The Christ United Methodist Church in Millsfield is gone — there is nothing left except an asphalt parking lot and a big hole in the ground. Next door, a freshly poured concrete driveway leads to nothing but an empty expanse of blue sky. A cardboard sign propped up on the exposed slab foundation of the home site is more of a plea than a warning — Go Back.
Gov. Phil Bredesen toured the west Tennessee area in a helicopter shortly after the tornados came through, and commented, “The wrath of God is the only way I can describe it.”
In Millsfield, spring has taken hold of the landscape, white dogwoods and red azaleas are in full bloom. An elderly man spins around his yard on a riding lawnmower within yards of the vanished homes and demolished church.
In Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, volunteers are rounding up livestock, row-crop farmers have cleared the debris left by the tornado from their fields and are now planting rice and cotton. Most rural folks know that the killer tornado simply came down where it did. They are picking up the pieces and getting on with their lives.