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Tornadoes devastate Tupelo and Gainesville

On this day in 1936, two small towns in Mississippi and Georgia are devastated by tornadoes, killing 200 people in one of the deadliest spates of tornadoes in United States history. A total of 466 people were killed over four days of nearly continuous twisters. Another 3,500 people were injured.

The storms and accompanying tornadoes hit Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee on April 5. At about 8:30 a.m., the first twister touched down in Coffeeville, Mississippi, before moving northeast and devastating Tupelo, Mississippi. The Gum Pond area of Tupelo was worst hit. Homes along the pond were completely swept away. A majority of the bodies of the 216 people killed in Tupelo were found in the pond. One notable survivor of this deadly tornado was one-year-old Elvis Presley, who was born in Tupelo.

The Tupelo twister was estimated to be an F5, the most destructive class of tornado, with winds in excess of 261 miles per hour. Some reports noted that the wind was so strong that it embedded pine needles into the trunks of trees that managed to stay standing.

In Gainesville, Georgia, the following morning, three separate tornadoes continued the destruction. In the single worst tornado incident in the United States in the 20th century, 70 workers at the Cooper Pants factory were killed when the building collapsed on them. Twenty more people were killed in a department store collapse. Debris was piled high throughout Gainesville.

Hospitals all over the Southeast were pressed into service to help survivors. Better weather forecasting and warning systems helped prevent tragedies of this scale in the years that followed.

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