Survivors recall deadly 1949 tornado that struck Cape Girardeau

Thursday, May 21, 2009
Unidentified photo from the Southeast Missourian archives.

For Doc Ford, the evening of May 21, 1949, was supposed to be a fun night spent with friends at Broadway Theatre.

Instead, the evening's events claimed the lives of 22 people, injured many more and etched painful memories in the minds of residents who survived the tornado that touched down in Cape Girardeau.

"They kept on paging people throughout the show and we wondered what was going on," said Ford, whose father was mayor at the time. "They asked us to go home, and when we got out of the theater we heard that a tornado had it."

Once Ford and Rust Communications chairman Gary Rust -- both of whom were 14 at the time -- exited the theater, they noticed the level of destruction the storm had caused. Ford's memories of that day include spending much of the day helping Rust clear debris from his home on Dunklin Street and witnessing odd scenes, such as a garage that had been severely damaged with a car inside that didn't have a scratch on it.

"It was sad all the lives lost and the destruction the tornado left behind," said Ford, now an owner of Ford and Sons Funeral Home. "Nothing is more devastating than being in the path of a tornado."

Rain had fallen throughout that Saturday 60 years ago. Around 6:30 p.m. sprinkles turned into a downpour. The sky darkened, followed by a "peculiar hail" with icy particles "that spun out flat, like half dollars, a quarter inch thick," according to a Southeast Missourian first-person account from May 21, 1969, by managing editor John L. Blue.

The tornado touched down at 6:56 p.m.

Its path was as wide as 352 yards and stretched from a hill on Gordonville Road to the Mississippi River south of Cape Rock. Blue said the storm gained momentum as it traveled downhill in the U.S. 61 area, "picking up huge oil tanks and hurling them around like jackstraws."

One building destroyed on U.S. 61 just north of Independence Street was the Airline Cafe, where people had gathered for an anniversary party. Ida Hahn, 81, of Illmo, Mo., was injured when the building collapsed; she died the next day at Southeast Missouri Hospital.

The twister then moved down Broadway to New Madrid Street, Dunklin Street and Henderson Avenue. The Rush H. Limbaugh Sr. home at 814 N. Henderson Ave. was among the homes in the area whose roofs were gone and walls crumpled. The Limbaughs had attended a wedding in Kennett, Mo., when the storm hit the area and did not learn of the tornado until they returned later that evening.

It then crossed State College, now Southeast Missouri State University, which sustained little damage.

The tornado then moved to North Sprigg Street and across a four-block area between Ruby and Emerald Streets, where it claimed 10 lives before traveling to the Red Star area, where nine people perished. Newspaper articles said the Church of God and Childs Grocery, along with many homes and trees, were leveled.

The storm traveled to Cape Rock before moving into the Mississippi River. In a Southeast Missourian file article, Lloyd Trickey said his automobile and two trucks parked near the river were picked up by the winds of the tornado and moved into the water.

Those who died in the storm ranged in age from 6 to 81. Three ministers were among the dead, including the Rev. G. Jack Crowe, an evangelist from Middletown, Ohio, who was in Cape Girardeau for a revival meeting at the Church of God.

The National Guard and Naval Reserve were mobilized a few hours after the storm and diverted curious onlookers who wanted to survey the damaged area. American Red Cross workers collected blood, set up feeding stations and helped search for bodies and remove debris. Central High School and the Arena Building were established as shelters for the homeless, which reached as many as 1,000.

In the end, the tornado caused 22 deaths, sent 72 others to three hospitals and injured hundreds.

Margaret Buelow was a private nurse at the time. She was asked by a physician at Southeast Missouri Hospital to mark patients' conditions on their heads with lipstick.

"I had nightmares of what I saw," Buelow said. "Those carried on for some time."

Buelow's brother, Marlin, said he didn't fully realize the severity of the situation at the time because he was 12 years old. But 60 years later he appreciates what nature can do.

"It was the most amazing thing, and it got my adrenaline going," Marlin Buelow said. "One interesting memory was seeing a straw that had blown through a telephone pole and a 5,000-gallon fuel tank lifted up and tossed like a feather."

Wayne Clark of Imperial, Mo., was 5 years old and living in Jackson when the storm hit. His parents, Marvin and Nora, owned Clark Electric, and his father was called to Cape Girardeau to assist in power restoration efforts.

Clark said his father told him later that while he was in Cape Girardeau a man's home was destroyed as he was taking a bath. Only the man and his bathtub were left intact, Clark said.

Betty Jo Hosea, who now lives in Florida, said that when the storm hit she was spending time with friends on North Street. She and her friends spent a few minutes in a basement; when the storm passed, she discovered her home had lost most of its roof and screened porch. At the height of the storm the furnace had been lifted several inches off its foundation and set down again.

But she said other homes nearby weren't so lucky, including one family that lived in a tent until their house was rebuilt.

"The tornado was terrible, but it brought many people together and was a great time for neighbor helping neighbor," Hosea wrote on semissourian.com. "Even to this day I am frightened of windstorms because I well remember the devastation it brought to our town."

A total of 202 homes were destroyed, 231 other houses damaged, 19 businesses leveled and 14 other businesses damaged. The monetary loss was estimated at between $3 million and $4 million.

Today, much of the affected area has been rebuilt, but small pieces of debris can be found in certain areas where the storm hit.

"When I travel over there I can still find stuff around today," said Toni McLain, whose family hosted one of the families left homeless from the storm. "For a lot of people it never leaves our minds.

"When you see the sky as a funny color you think back," McLain said. "You can replace what's lost in a storm, but you can't replace life."

bblackwell@semissourian.com

388-3628

Pertinent addresses:

814 N. Henderson Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

1701 Lacey St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Searching for a few precious possessions after the tornado hit Cape Girardeau on May 21, 1949, these residents of the Rand, Johnson and Water streets area in the east side of the Red Star suburb toiled over the ruins of years of saving. This was the general area in which eight persons lost their lives.

Map of pertinent addresses

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