A Lauderdale County Web
The Great Cyclone of
The Long Morning After
he following morning The Laurel Ledger published the latest confirmed information about the tragedy. In a paragraph toward the end of the article, the unnamed author writes:
The interest of the press was overwhelming, partially because it was, in fact, a great disaster, but also because reports of damage and injury were very slow to emerge from the stricken area. However, there was a third, if unusual, reason to be considered. According to The New York Times, Meridian was “more like an Eastern city than any other in the south.” Since the east identified with Meridian as one of their own, the readers apparently wanted more news faster about the condition of the damaged city.
News coming out of the area was not only slowly collected and announced, but it was also much delayed leaving the area by the damage. The Postal Union Telegraph Service and the more well known Western Union Telegraph Service had lost over fifteen miles of wire in the storm and it would be weeks before telegraph wires were back in service. Train service through the area had been temporarily interrupted but by Saturday evening it would be restored. The only means remaining of getting information out of the city was the telephone which, despite the damage, remained in limited service.
However, the newspapers of the times depended primarily on the telegraph to distribute information between distant locations. The chief wire service was Publishers Press Direct Wire and even they could get no information from the city. The newspapers of the region immediately dispatched reporters to the scene but it would be hours before they would arrive and even longer before they could collect the needed information and get to a working telephone. The situation was compounded by the fact that there were at this time a limited number of long distance lines into the city and relatives from all over the country were jamming these, seeking news of a friend or relative in the area.
Some of the early reports indicated that hundreds were dead and that over five million dollars in damage had been done in the city. The most informative and accurate reports were published by the regional press, the Birmingham News, the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, the Atlanta Constitution and both the Mobile and New Orleans news organizations of the era. However, as soon as the stories arrived at the publisher’s office and were put on the wire services for distribution, the out-of-region newspapers began to pump up the stories, sensationalizing and spinning the facts to paint a darker, much more devastating and “dramatic” picture of the destruction and injuries.
Complicating the issue further, almost before the storm had passed, wild and exaggerated reports were sent out over the telephone lines on the outskirts of the city by some fine but grossly misinformed citizens of the area. Pleas for unneeded and unwanted assistance from the outside were issued by people who had no real idea of what damage had occurred but were frightened and overwhelmed by the stories they had heard, some true, some grossly exaggerated, of what had happened to the city.
As the source of one of its’ early stories, The Atlanta Constitution cites a Cumberland Telephone Company service man named J. D. Breaux. Mr. Breaux, having observed the storm from outside the city, had not been in the downtown area when the storm struck. However, he provided details that, perhaps, should not have been released before being verified. This was not an isolated incident, and Mr. Breaux is just one of many well-meaning people who unknowingly fanned the flames of sensationalism already burning brightly in the press.
In an effort to control the situation and perhaps get the news more in line with the actual truth of the situation, The Meridian Star entered the fray, either of its’ own accord or at the request of the city. Unfortunately the Star’s approach was to downplay and understate the events of the previous twenty-four hours. The numbers of killed and injured were greatly reduced, well under the actual numbers, and the damage incurred by Meridian businesses was cut well below what it would cost to reestablish the commercial district of the town. The death toll was reduced to “6 or 8” and the cost of the damage reduced drastically to a startling low of $400,000.
Having more credibility than the out-of-town media by virtue of being on the scene, The Meridian Star won the day and shaped the news that would emerge from the city until the story dropped from the press like an overripe blackberry from the bramble bushes that hugged Sowashee Creek south of the city. Once again The Laurel Ledger surfaces as the voice of reason:
“Many conflicting reports have gone out. The Star came out yesterday in an editorial and denied some of these as totally incorrect. All will appreciate the cool matter-of-fact way the Star has presented this, yet in its’ effort to be conservative it has perhaps minimized the real situation, while many reporters have exaggerated, making word pictures for sensation.”
At 9:00 A. M. on the morning after the storm, the community began to get involved in bringing some order, not only to the rescue efforts but to the relief and restoration efforts as well. The city government and a large number of the principal members of the city’s business establishments held a meeting and formed the General Relief Committee.
H. M. Street, a businessman of Meridian, was elected chairman and J. W. Donovan was elected secretary. The committee immediately set about securing funding to relieve the suffering of the city’s citizens by providing food and shelter to the residents who had been devastated by the storm, assisting in the rebuilding process, and stabilizing the area until business, which had been virtually suspended, could resume. Before the meeting had been adjourned after two and a half hours, more than $8,000 had been committed by the principal businessmen and area citizens for the purpose, with the city’s contribution yet to come. The city would chip in another $10,000 within hours of the close of business that day.
The committee had the foresight to form, in advance of the meeting, four sub-committees that had gone into each affected district of the city and ascertained the level of destruction and the families that had been displaced by the storm. At that early hour, already more than 100 families had been identified and were receiving aid with several of the committee’s findings still incomplete. Of those families, sixty had lived in the Georgetown district with the assessment continuing even as the meeting progressed.
At 12:30 P. M. the committee attended a mass meeting of the citizens and reported their findings and continuing efforts on the city’s behalf. They outlined their plan for assisting the citizens of the city needing help and beginning the rebuilding efforts.
Concurrent with the mass meeting in the city, the Governor rolled into town on a special train pressed into service by him at the state capital in Jackson. Governor James K. Vardaman was a politician’s politician and lived for the intrigue and competition of the political campaign. He was called the “Great White Chief” by his supporters and, although he had many fine ideas, some of which he was able to implement, he is probably best remembered for his extremist ideas on race relations. He did not support public education for blacks beyond basic moral instruction and vocational training. He said that he felt that blacks should remain in economic servitude and that education was unnecessary for the kind of work they would do. He supported the closing of black public schools and the repeal of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U. S. Constitution, which gave blacks the right to vote and hold office.
Along with him he had brought forty of the state’s legislators who were also eager to “press the flesh” and win a few points toward their own reelections, the Attorney General of the state, and a railroad executive of the New Orleans and Northeastern rail, C. C. Harvey, who had provided the train upon which they traveled.
But, not satisfied with his political cronies and railroad executive, he also brought a gang of prisoners from the Rankin County Prison Farm and a group of correctional officers to monitor their activities. The city’s jail had already been nearly emptied and all other resources available to the county were in place. The city, needless to say, did not appreciate having an additional thirty-seven convicts thrown into the mix without knowing about it in advance, especially since it was felt that the additional manpower was unneeded.
The Governor had apparently learned of the tornado earlier from the state-level officers of the National Guard and, subsequently, from other, more routine sources. His visit would probably have been welcome, as would his state-issued check drawn in the amount of $5,000, had he taken the time to coordinate his activities with the local authorities. Unfortunately, he did not.
That evening, also without coordination, he issued the following statement:
“To this end I call upon all good people of Mississippi to contribute generously to this cause. Let the contributions be sent to Col. H. M. Street, Chairman of the Relief Committee, Meridian, Miss. I trust that you will act promptly in this matter.”
The Governor’s statement rankled President Hunter George of the Meridian Board of Trade and Cotton Exchange because the appropriate steps, he felt, had already been taken and, well he knew, Meridian’s citizens were a fiercely independent and self-sustaining people. Neither they nor he appreciated the Governor’s “meddling” in the city’s affairs. He, almost immediately, released the following statement ostensibility directed toward the Governor:
“While appreciating the sympathy and good fellowship displayed in these proffers, it is well to be understood that Meridian is not yet impoverished, her people being easily able to meet the emergency.”
Later that evening, the Relief Committee joined the controversy by releasing to the press a statement to the effect that:
They further made their position on the issue abundantly clear when Relief Committee Member, Mr. A. S. Bozeman, offered a resolution before the committee.
The resolution passed, overwhelmingly:
“…thanking Governor Vardaman for his interest in the city as manifested by his presence here and his present contribution to the relief fund and manifested also by his public appeal for financial help for the storm sufferers, which was made of his own volition after viewing the situation and without the suggestion or solicitation of the Meridian people.
“The committee, believing that the city is able to handle the situation with the generous contributions of its own citizens as supplemented by the appropriation of the legislature from the executive contingent fund and the labor of the state convicts now on the ground, has determined not to appeal for outside help, but will receive and expend for the benefit of the storm sufferers all sums voluntarily contributed for that purpose.”
The following day, March 4, 1906, the committee advised the media:
On March 5, 1906, the pressure had begun to mount from the many benevolent organizations locally, statewide and in the nation, who in all goodwill and fellowship wanted desperately to assist the citizens of Meridian. Finally, and reluctantly, Relief Committee Member Bozeman again addressed the committee and it was determined that, while the city was fully capable of caring for its own and that it would not appeal for aid, it would “not refuse proffered assistance.”
On March 6, 1906, a group of black Meridian citizens, called by the newspapers “the better class of Negros”, possibly led by the minister of the black congregation who had recently lost his church building and many of his worshipers to the storm, had raised more than $700 and quickly added it to the city's relief fund.
This probably came as quite a surprise to those several newspapers that seemed to delight in publishing stories about “shiftless” or “worthless Negroes” who were alleged to be causing so much “mischief” in the aftermath. These stories were just another example of the sensationalism being practiced by some of the media. There are no documented events that suggest Meridian’s black citizens were either any less grieved or any less helpful and determined to restore order and rescue the injured than her white citizens. In fact, there are a number of brief reports scattered here and there, almost grudgingly, that suggest that heroism knows no color.
Sunday, March 4, 1906, and the following Monday, were days of funerals for the city as the many local victims of the storm were carried to their final resting places and the city entered a period of mourning for her lost.
There is no indication in the reports of the time if the $5,000 offered by Governor Vardaman was, in fact, pressed into service or if it had been returned to the state. However, the fund created by the Relief Committee did end up with a great surplus of money which was used during the following weeks for the betterment of the city and the relief of her citizens.
Just about six weeks after the tornado in Meridian, another great tragedy occurred in the United States. On April 18, 1906 a devastating earthquake, one that is remembered today, struck the city of San Francisco, California. The Meridian Relief Committee was still assisting in the restoration of the city and caring for her own citizens at the time. However, the city’s response to her devastated western sister was immediate and heart-warming. The Mayor and board of aldermen and councilmen of the city adopted a resolution of sympathy -- but perhaps it should have been empathy under the circumstances, which carried with it appropriations of $500 for the earthquake sufferers.
The Meridian Order of Elks appropriated $100 and established a committee to solicit further donations for the San Francisco victims. The Meridian Tornado Relief Committee appropriated the balance of the fund remaining, over $1,000. The balance was in excess of the amount necessary to relieve all of the distress caused by the tornado. The Standard Club, the Jewish social organization in Meridian, raised $500 and appointed a committee to establish a fund and solicit further contributions from the area’s Jewish community. Despite being protective and independent, Meridian had never failed to rally when help was needed, at home or elsewhere.
Meridian, now well on the road to recovery, would heal her wounds in her own way. She would rebuild her storm-ravaged and demolished wholesale district better than before. In the near future, telephone and telegraph systems would be repaired, reinforced and expanded to accommodate the ever-growing, prosperous population of the city. By 1912, the city’s fire department would procure its first motorized fire truck; by 1924 horses were no longer in use. Shortly thereafter, Cap’n Billy would pass away, at peace with this world, but, perhaps, still hearing the alarm bells and feeling the heat of the beast he had spent nearly his entire life fighting. His mortal remains would be borne to his final resting place in Magnolia Cemetery on the back of one of Meridian’s first motorized fire trucks.
The city, between the time of the Great Cyclone and the Great Depression, would have her glory days, her Golden Age. As long as she had her railroads, the Queen would reign in Mississippi.
Page Last Updated: Sunday, 19 August 2018
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