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2020 tornado touchdown and 1933 memories of another

Any tornado touchdown can be terribly frightening, and the one last week near Tazewell is no exception. It’s a reminder that all of us need to be alert to the dangers of severe weather and to be aware of the threats.

Last week’s tornado was surprising in some ways. It was the second one in Claiborne County in just three weeks, one in December and this one in January.

Unusual in that the of the 1,200 tornadoes recorded each year in the United States, most are in the spring and fall months. Fortunate in that the National Weather Service confirmed winds of 65 miles per hour and a width of 20 yards, much less than many of the storms of the past, one in particular that hit much of Claiborne County in 1933.

Those statistics don’t relieve the anxiety and frustration of the folks in the touchdown area. You read about the storm in the Claiborne Progress, and you heard about it on various media on the day of its occurrence.

With the modern conveniences of the internet, radio, television, and cell phones and the notification of approaching stormy systems, we are much more able to know in advance and to take quick action to protect our families. Those systems were lacking in 1933.

In the early 1930s, communications were much more limited. The situation was complicated for everyone in the county when a devastating storm knocked out telephone service and its strong winds toppled trees and blocked the highways.

Although most of Claiborne County was affected, it was in Pruden that the most damage was done. The Middlesboro Daily News’ front-page headline the next day proclaimed “Pruden Almost Wiped Out By Storm.”

Long after that storm, Bonnie M. Page collected personal recollections of the 1933 tornado and published them in a book which she titled “Pruden as we remember it.” Ms. Page was a native of Claiborne County’s Powell Valley and her husband was a native of Pruden. Her efforts led to a comprehensive summary from people who suffered through one of the tri-state’s most vicious storms in the last century.

Just a few years ago, writer Natalie Sweet incorporated pictures of damage done by the tornado to the campus of Lincoln Memorial University and the immediate area. Those examples are in Sweet’s book, “Harrogate and Cumberland Gap,” published in 2014.

Any tornado is dangerous, of course, but the one that destroyed so much of the Pruden community illustrates the threats to human life, business and industry, and community endeavors. And serves as a reminder to a new generation to take every precaution any time a storm threatens. After the touchdown, it is likely to be too late.

Dr. William H. Baker is a Claiborne County native and former Middlesboro resident. Email wbaker@limestone.edu