(Photo from NWS)
Joy Toler Carter recalls the fatal tornado that left the city of Vicksburg reeling on December 5, 1953.
There are certain experiences in life that shine brightly in otherwise fuzzy memories. That’s the reality for Joy Toler Carter of Brandon. So many of her memories she’s collected over her 87 years have started to grow dimmer with each passing month, it seems. One memory she will never shake is of the fatal tornado that left the city of Vicksburg reeling on December 5, 1953.
Now 70 years later, Carter says the day still sticks out in her mind.
“It was my senior year of high school, and I was a cheerleader,” said Carter. “I was in a parade that morning, and I remember feeling sickly because we were in our winter uniform, a sweater, and it was warmer. I was burning up.”
That day was unseasonably warm. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures rose to the 70s by that afternoon.
It was a blessing in disguise that Carter felt sick.
“I was supposed to go out with my friends, but I decided to go back to my house with a few of my friends and rest,” said Carter.
By heading home, Carter avoided being downtown when the tornado ravaged Vicksburg. But it was too close for comfort.
“When the tornado started to blow over us, my mother yelled for me and my friends to run to the hallway and get down on the floor,” said Carter. “I don’t know what good it would have done, knowing now how bad it was. It just tore up so much of downtown.”
What should have been a happy holiday season was marred by loss of life, homes, and businesses.
“Two of my classmates died, and another classmate lost his little sister,” said Carter. “And then all those poor children. It was just awful, it was really bad.”
The children Carter is referring to were attending a birthday party at the Saenger Theater on Walnut Street. The theater collapsed, trapping those from the party inside. Five children were killed in that collapse, and two of them were sisters.
Carter said her family was unscathed by the storm physically, but brokenhearted. They had to find a way to help survivors.
“My daddy still owned the Piggly Wiggly at the time,” said Carter. “So he gave out food, sandwiches and things, to people who had lost so much to the storm. And we had people come by our house and eat. It wasn’t much, but what else can you do?”
The Storm, the Stats, and the Myth
The Red Cross reported in February 1954 that 37 people were killed, over 300 were injured and over 100 more were sent to the hospital with severe injuries. Nearly 1000 structures were damaged and 1,200 people were left homeless.
The tornado started just across the river in eastern Madison Parish, Louisiana. It crossed over the Mississippi River and into Vicksburg at approximately 5:35pm. By 5:40pm, the tornado had ended about seven miles north-northeast of Vicksburg.
Five minutes was all it took to reduce much of Vicksburg to rubble.
Initially, the storm was thought to be an F5, but is now believed to have been an F4 by more modern measurement standards.
The storm’s path of destruction measured at $25 million dollars in 1953. Adjusted for inflation, that’s over $288 million.
This tornado dispelled a common myth that the city would never experience a tornado because of its proximity to the river.
“I don’t know why we thought that,” said Carter. “But we were wrong.”
Remembering the Storm
The lives lost to that storm are forever memorialized with monuments in Vicksburg. A plaque was placed at the River City Plaza in 2003, on the 50th anniversary of the storm.
In 2006, a memorial mural sponsored by the Cashmann family was unveiled on the Vicksburg floodwall that runs along the riverfront on Levee Street. The painting not only memorializes the destruction but pays homage to the Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the Vicksburg Daily Post following the storm.
But for those who were on the front line 70 years ago, the memories were something that would stick a lifetime.
“It’s still so sad and so terrifying,” said Carter. “You just never know when something like that will happen, and it’s just gone in a second.”
There was another piece of history being written during the storm with the life of Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, Jr.
“My mother was pregnant with me in December of 1953. She would always say what a devastation it was to be pregnant during that tragedy,” said Flaggs. “I can only say from my mother’s womb that we are blessed that God saved us from harm during the 1953 tornado. And we send heartfelt compassion to the people affected during that time. We are hopeful in praying that we never face a tragedy like that one again.”