Ranking worst tornadoes in Shelby County history

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ray Atchison survived World War II. However, the scariest day of his life didn’t happen on the battlefield, but right here in Columbiana on March 21, 1932.

Atchison was just 11 when one of the worst tornadoes in Shelby County history destroyed most of Columbiana.

“It was terrible,” said Atchison, who lived on North Main Street. “I still have vivid memories of that catastrophe.”

Atchison said he was visiting a cousin’s house when his aunt saw the storm approaching. She ordered the kids to go into the middle room of the house and lie on the floor.

“All of us were praying for safety,” said Atchison, 87, a retired English professor at Samford University. “A lot of people were injured in that storm.”

The Old Shelby County Courthouse was turned into a temporary hospital, Atchison said. At least 14 people, some say 16, died that day and 75 more were injured, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm cut a path 350 yards wide, destroying 20 homes and damaging 200 more.

Atchison said his family barn was lifted off its foundation, killing his beloved pony.

“That’s what made me cry … that just really touched me,” he said.

The tornado today ranks as an F4 on the Fujita scale, meaning the storm packed winds ranging from 207-260 miles per hour.

Shelby County has seen its fair share of severe tornadoes in its history, including five F4 and two F3 twisters.

8 worst tornadoes in Shelby County history

(Data comes from the National Weather Services’ tornado database.)

1. Nov. 22, 1874 – F3. More than half of Montevallo is damaged or destroyed after the twister hits around 11 that night. Two people die and 20 more are injured.

2. March 21, 1932 – F4. Just before the Columbiana tornado struck, another twister crosses South Shelby County after killing 49 in Perry, Bibb and Chilton counties.

3. March 21, 1932 – F4. The tornado Atchison survived kills 14 and injures 75 at around 5:30 in the evening. At least 40 homes are destroyed. Another 200 buildings are damaged.

4. May 5, 1933 – F4. Storm originates at Brent in Bibb County around 2:30 in the morning and moves into Helena, where 14 people are killed and 150 injured. More than 100 buildings are demolished.

5. April 18, 1953 – F3. Eight people die and almost 500 are injured after storm hits Siluria around 5 p.m. The Buck Creek Cotton Mill suffers $3 million in damage.

6. Jan. 24, 1964 – F4. Twister kills 10 near U.S. 280 in Harpersville around 7 p.m. Three homes are completely destroyed. More than 20 houses and dozens of automobiles are damaged. The storm destroys most of the grave markers in the Harpersville Garden of Memories Cemetery.

7. May 27, 1973 – F4. Tornado rolls along through seven counties. Storm starts around 5:30 that evening in Greensboro, where 72 are injured, and continues to Brent, destroying more than 90 percent of the town. Five people die and 56 are injured in Bibb County. Storm continues to Montevallo and then to Mt. Cheaha.

8. March 27, 1994 – F2. Several mobile homes are destroyed and 53 people are hurt after a Palm Sunday storm touches down at 5:31 p.m. Several businesses along U.S. 31 are damaged and hundreds of trees are knocked down. Damage extends from Helena to Pelham and then on to Inverness.