Because April is high tornado season, and storms are top of mind especially in Northeast Georgia, here’s a family’s remarkable story about how they survived Gainesville’s 1936 tornado despite being in or near the middle of it. They were indeed fortunate they were not among the more than 200 people killed.
Louise Coffee was a survivor along with her sisters, Bobbie and Margaret, and her parents, John M. and Louisa Lord Coffee. Many survivors of that epic storm have told their stories in newspaper articles, some on television and radio, over the years. And Louise (now Chapman) and Bobbie (now Canup) have told theirs to family or friends, but never publicly.
Louise was 19 years old and in the epicenter of the tornado. The Hall County woman is now 98.
She had graduated Gainesville High School in 1934 and was working at the new Roses in downtown Gainesville, located on Washington Street in the middle of the block between Bradford and Main streets.
Six or eight employees were already upstairs in Roses waiting to be called downstairs. Louise met the assistant manager on the main floor to put money in the cash registers.
It was dark and muggy outside, and all of a sudden the lights went out in the store. Louise and the assistant manager buzzed the employees on the second floor to come downstairs. About the time they came down, the tornado hit.
“You’ve heard that tornadoes sound like a freight train,” Louise said, but that wasn’t what she heard. “I could see outside,” she said, “and I never heard a sound.”
She focused her eyes on the Confederate statue in the square. The whirling of the storm looked like sand swirling, and if there was sound, it was more like the sifting of sand.
The store’s doors were open and gently swaying back and forth, Louise recalls. Employees went to the back wall of Roses as the tornado struck the square. It was the only wall left standing.
When the storm passed, the assistant manager told the employees to go upstairs and get their belongings. But there was nothing upstairs; the top floor was gone. They were lucky the roof didn’t cave in on them, and nobody was injured in the store.
Louise’s father had tried to make his way to Roses to find his daughter. Instead, he barely made it in front of Piedmont Pharmacy across the square, crawling under the fender of a car and lying on its tire as the violent winds blew around him.
The family’s home on Gordon Avenue survived the winds, although the sisters’ mother, Louisa, crawled into a culvert as the storm threatened.
Louise described “an eerie feeling all over,” the streets full of stunned people looking over the ruins or searching for victims. Ambulances sped into and out of the town the rest of the day and into the night and next day.
Bobbie, 8 years old at the time, was on her way to Main Street School that morning. She stopped by Haney’s store for an “all-day sucker,” after her mother cautioned her to hurry to school before what looked like a rainstorm might come.
As children played on the playground before school started, a fire bell rang, summoning them inside. A janitor grabbed Bobbie as she tarried on the playground. Teachers huddled students in hallways.
Bobbie couldn’t see her home out the back door as she usually could because of the heavy rain and darkness.
As the wind and rain ceased, everything went quiet, and parents began to pick up their children at the school. They didn’t realize the devastation just a couple of blocks north.
Bobbie’s mother and Aunt Estelle Lord Bennett picked her and her cousin, Reginald, up along with Bennett’s two children. They headed downtown to search for Bobbie’s father and sister, navigating the debris-filled streets and downed power lines.
They made their way to what was then the “new” jail, one of the few buildings downtown that appeared safe. People, many screaming with injuries, crowded inside.
Mrs. Coffee left to look for her husband and Louise. The other sister, Margaret, had made it home by herself after a harrowing experience. She had been going to Gainesville High School, then on West Washington Street a block off the square. But the storm was so close she headed toward St. Paul Methodist Church on what was then Grove Street, now West Academy. Fortunately, she didn’t make it because the tornado hit it head on, picking it up in the air and exploding it.
Instead, she ran into a house next door, though that house also was done in by the storm. It dropped Margaret and a man, woman and their daughter into the basement. The man, woman and Margaret survived; a piano fell on the daughter, killing her, Bobbie said.
While all the Coffee family was in the middle or near the center of the storm, the only injuries were to the father, who was bruised, and Margaret, who had a lump on her head.
Bobbie’s third-grade teacher at Main Street School, Kathleen Gaines, was riding with her father to school when they saw the tornado and hurried back home. They closed all the doors and huddled in the center of the house. But the house suffered a direct hit, killing Kathleen, her mother, a maid and their dog. The father survived.
“I still get nervous in a storm,” Louise Chapman says. “I don’t care who knows it. I still can’t stand to hear sirens.”
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.