An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Hillside Refuge: Tornado Shelters in Northeast Mississippi

Erin Austen Abbott, Photographer

Published: 
19 February 2008
Overview: 
Map of Mississippi hill country, depicting sites where tornados have landed, 2008. Courtesy of Southern Spaces.
Map of Mississippi hill country, depicting sites where tornados have landed, 2008. Courtesy of Southern Spaces.

Homemade residential storm shelters dot the northeastern Mississippi countryside, providing temporary security in a region hit frequently by violent storms. A haven as well for treasured relics and discarded objects, these refuges, made from materials including cement, aluminum, and even recycled school buses, can easily go unnoticed as they blend into the hillsides. In a three-county area near Tupelo, Mississippi, Erin Austen Abbott uncovers these storm shelters and their place in local history and culture.

Introduction

Popular American films and literature often depict tornadoes as distinctly midwestern phenomena: a girl in Kansas is whisked away by an afternoon cyclone, a pack of storm chasers follow Oklahoma twisters. While the United States experiences more tornadoes than anywhere else on earth, these storms also occur further south of the infamous Tornado Alley. Parts of Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia experience tornadoes that, according to Michael Robinson of the Army Corps of Engineers, "tend to be more deadly than those in the Great Plains and Midwest." Tornados in "Dixie Alley" tend to "strike more often at night, are usually obscured by clouds and heavy rain, and are less prone to early detection than those that are often observed miles away on the plains."1 On the night of February 5, 2008, tornadoes struck in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, leaving over fifty people dead. Map of Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley

"Looking S.E. from Corner Church and Walnut Sts Tupelo Miss. Path of tornado of April 5, 1936 About 9 PM."
"Looking S.E. from Corner Church and Walnut Sts Tupelo Miss. Path of tornado of April 5, 1936 About 9 PM."

For decades, the state of Mississippi led the nation in tornado-related deaths: 1,091 between 1916 and 1974. The most devastating tornado to hit northeast Mississippi struck Tupelo on April 5, 1936. Two hundred twenty-two people died in the disaster, over 300 were hospitalized, and nearly fifty city blocks were leveled. The Northeast Mississippi Historical and Genealogical Society published an extensive record of the tornado in 1997, containing oral histories, newspaper reports, maps, poetry, and the J. W. Allen song, "The Tupelo Disaster." Statewide records of the number of tornadoes occurring in Mississippi have been kept since 1950. They show that the "average number of reported tornadoes in the state each year is twenty-five, with sixty-two the highest number reported in a single year, and five the fewest. The average number of tornado-related deaths in Mississippi each year is eight."2

Unlike states in Tornado Alley (which generally experience tornadoes in late spring and early summer), Mississippi has two peak tornado seasons: one from February to May and the other in November. The most devastating tornadoes, however, hit northeast Mississippi during the spring season. In late April 1984, a twister in Water Valley left eight people dead; in early March 1992, tornadoes hit Lauderdale, Sharkey, Washington, and Yalobusha counties, resulting in three fatalities.3 In January 2000, tornadoes and high winds hit Lafayette, Union, and Yalobusha counties, damaging roofs, downing power lines, uprooting trees, and demolishing homes.4 The paths tornadoes carve leave lasting marks across the Mississippi Hill Country. Residents bandage these reminders of destruction by rebuilding homes, repairing roofs, and replanting trees. Some Mississippians also devise their own defenses, building homemade havens into the earth.

Erin Austen Abbott, Furrs, Mississippi, 2006.

Photographer's Statement

Driving down a long Mississippi road one day, I kept spotting tiny doors in the hills, each one different than the next. These small entrances led to tornado shelters, or storm shelters, as they are often called. Intrigued, I wanted to find more of these structures, which blend so effectively into the domestic landscape of lawn furniture and garden gnomes that if you aren't driving in the right direction you might miss them entirely. I went out within a thirty-mile radius of my home in Water Valley to photograph them.

Driving down a long Mississippi road one day, I kept spotting tiny doors in the hills, each one different than the next. These small entrances led to tornado shelters, or storm shelters, as they are often called. Intrigued, I wanted to find more of these structures, which blend so effectively into the domestic landscape of lawn furniture and garden gnomes that if you aren't driving in the right direction you might miss them entirely. I went out within a thirty-mile radius of my home in Water Valley to photograph them.

Having become aware of this hidden aspect of the landscape, I wondered—what's behind that safety door that people trust with their lives? Would I find Jesus, nailed on a wall, under the Earth, ready to protect and be prayed to? Would I find emergency supplies? A family's last or most treasured possessions? I was ready to explore. This is what I found.

This is just a small journey into my own "backyard." I look at these photos of dugout hills and see roadside monuments to comfort and security in the Mississippi Hills Region, where we have endured tornados on many occasions—sometimes losing everything, sometimes nothing, but always surviving. For those who have tornado shelters, the fear level falls and life goes on. 

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Photo Essay

About the Photographer

Erin Austen Abbott was born in 1976 in Tupelo, Mississippi. She studied photography at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts and at the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle, Washington. Her travels have inspired different bodies of work, such as "Children of India" and "Rooftop Bee Keepers" (an ongoing project starting with New York City). This project takes her back to Mississippi, and the cultural landscape of tornado shelters. She has shown work in Seattle; Boston; Memphis; Los Angeles; Oxford, MS; Basel, Switzerland; Milan, Italy and Berlin, Germany. She is the curator of "The One Night Stand Motel Art Show Series" which has been "The One Night Stand at The Ole Miss Motel" in Oxford, Mississippi, and "The One Night Stand at The Beverly Laurel Motel" in Los Angeles, California. Her work is part of several university art curriculums in Milan, Italy and Oxford, Mississppi. Erin is currently living in Water Valley, Mississippi. She works in color and all her work is shot on 35mm film.

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US Tornado Map depicting average annual number of Tornadoes, 1955–1967

From James W. Clay, Paul D. Escott, Land of the South (Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 1989).

Recommended Resources

Web

Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage of The University of Southern Mississippi. (Oral Histories of the Tupelo Tornado, 1936.)

  • Sarah Bernice Arnold: http://digilib.usm.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/coh/id/9585/rec/1
  • Howard Dudley Long: http://digilib.usm.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/coh/id/4739/rec/1
  • Janelle McComb: http://digilib.usm.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/coh/id/5286/rec/1
  • Aaron Morgan: http://digilib.usm.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/coh/id/5763/rec/1

Disaster Center: Mississippi Tornadoes. http://www.disastercenter.com/miss/tornado.html.

National Weather Service: Tornado Statistics for Mississippi, 1950–2007. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/jan/?n=tornado_statistics.

Tornado Project: Mississippi Tornadoes. http://www.tornadoproject.com/alltorns/mstorn.htm.

The Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupelo-Gainesville_Outbreak. (Information about a group of tornadoes that devastated the southeastern United States in 1936.)

Text

Associated Press, "Storms Sweep across Northern Mississippi." Jackson [Mississippi] Clarion-Ledger, May 5, 2003.

Grazulis, Thomas P. Significant Tornadoes 1680–1991, A Chronology and Analysis of Events. St. Johnsbury, VT: The Tornado Project of Environmental Films, 1993.

Harden, Clay. "Tornadoes Slam Mississippi: Families, Businesses Sort through Rubble." Jackson [Mississippi] Clarion-Ledger, February 27, 2001, 7A.

Pettus, Gary. "Tornado, Mississippi's Winds of Fate: Warning System Improvement Due." Jackson Mississippi] Clarion-Ledger, November 24, 2002, 1A.

Ramage, Jr. Martis D. Tupelo, Mississippi, Tornado of 1936. Tupelo: Northeast Mississippi Historical and Genealogical Society, 1997.

Rice, Doyle. "Global Warning: Increase in Storms." USA Today, December 4, 2007, 9D.

"Twisters Cut Destructive Path across Mississippi." Jackson [Mississippi] Clarion-Ledger, January 4, 2000, 1A. ["Staff Writers Pamela Berry, Riva Brown and Theresa Kiely contributed to this report."]

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  • 1. Michael C. Robinson, "Natural Disasters," in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 1, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), 584.
  • 2. Clay Harden, "Tornadoes Slam Mississippi: Families, Businesses Sort through Rubble," Jackson [Mississippi] Clarion-Ledger, February 27, 2001, 7A.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. "Twisters Cut Destructive Path across Mississippi," Jackson [Mississippi] Clarion-Ledger, January 4, 2000, 1A.