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1940: Albany's 'hellish gale' strikes

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Many people today remember vividly the floods of 1994 and 1998 that inundated wide portions of the city and swept through many homes in what could arguably be called the largest disaster, in terms of scale and scope, in the city's history.

We say arguably because, there have been instances where other disasters have wreaked such havoc on the city.

There are a dwindling number of people in Albany who witnessed such a disaster 71 years ago this month when a tornado touched down in central Albany, leaving a wide swath of damage in its wake and forever changing the face of the downtown business district and residential districts in South Albany.

Using the editions of The Albany Herald immediately following the morning of Saturday, Feb. 10, 1940, we now can look back at the destruction of that day and the way the community came together to rebuild the heart of the city.

The following is an excerpt from the prologue of a special edition that was put together eight days after the tornado hit:

"At 4 o'clock on the morning of Saturday, February 10, 1940 the City of Albany, metropolis of Southwest Georgia, had scarce begun to stir itself for the day's labors that lay ahead. The peaceful calm of the hour before dawn lay everywhere like a downy blanket.

"Out of the turgid Southwest, its only warning a howling crescendo described by those who heard it and lived to tell the story as 'the noise of a thousand freight trains,' roared a tornado.

"Approximately fifteen minutes later the storm had passed. In its wake lay death and destruction.

"A wind whose speed was estimated to have reached five hundred miles an hour leveled homes, crushed business houses to the ground, hurled automobiles through the air and performed incredible feats of wanton havoc.

"Eighteen persons dead and dying were left by the hellish gale. Property damage that ran into the millions of dollars -- estimates ranged from five to ten million -- was inflicted in the twinkling of an eye, almost. A holocaust the like of which Albany had never known before had been visited upon a growing, thriving city."

In reality, the intensity of the tornado was nowhere near the 500-mph claimed by officials at the time -- according to the national weather service no tornados have ever been measured with winds over 317 mph -- but the "hellish gale" could have easily been an EF5 on the enhanced Fujita scale, which would have had winds over 200 mph.

Additionally, estimates vary on the number of the dead. In the immediate count following the tornado, 18 were found dead and, in the days following the tornado others died, bumping the total up to as many as 20 in some accounts.

The tornado's impact on South Albany residential neighborhoods was staggering. Many of the homes from Highland Avenue to Oglethorpe Boulevard were obliterated.

Hundreds were injured and taken Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital for treatment, or to out-of-town facilities, depending on their conditions.

The destruction was enough to prompt Gov. E.D. Rivers to dispatch the National Guard to Albany and for national offices of the American Red Cross in Washington to dispatch its top rescue crews, according to an account in the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette. The governor and Albany's mayor also were notified by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he would make available whatever federal resources were needed.

"Only the fact that it came at night saved us from being another Gainesville," Herald Editor W.M. Pryse was quoted by The Associated Press as saying.

The reference was to the 1936 tornado in Gainesville, Ga., that killed 200.

City Commissioner Tommie Postell, who was six years old at the time, remembers how he and his grandmother tried to get to his other family members who lived south of Broad Avenue.

"We were blocked. We went downtown to Broad Avenue and it was just gone. Everything was demolished," Postell said. "When we finally got around to where the rest of the family was, I learned that my best friend had been pulled out of his house and they found him and his mattress in a tree nearby."

The paper itself was forced to rely on the kindness of surrounding towns to be published and get the information about the tornado to the community.

The Dawson News, the Moultrie Observer, the Thomasville Times-Enterprise and the Pelham Journal all provided either facilities or printing operations for The Herald in the days immediately following the tornado.

View the special tornado section from Feb. 18, 1940, online at albanyherald.com/heritagealbany and view never-before published photos of the damage and a newsreel shown around the country.

And if you have photos of historic Albany you'd like to submit, e-mail us at news@albanyherald.com.

E-mail J.D. Sumner at j.d.sumner@albanyherald.com.