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Published 12:00 am Friday, April 29, 2011

The storms: ‘I’ve never been that scared’

By Billy Davis

It was not, like they say, his first rodeo.

When Panola sheriff’s deputy Mike Davis peeked out an office door Wednesday at Pope School, he saw a funnel cloud passing over the little town. He knew to respect what he saw, which he described like this: The “long tooth of a saber tooth tiger,” dipping down from swirling clouds.

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The funnel cloud was moving fast, about a quarter-mile away, he recalled.

“Another deputy had radioed there was a funnel cloud over Pope,” explained Davis, the school resource officer.

“So I went to the window and looked out and said, ‘Yep, I see it.’ Then I went in the hallway with the kids. It ain’t something to play with.” 

It was the second funnel cloud Davis has seen in uniform. He once witnessed a funnel cloud pass over Dummyline Road, west of Batesville, where he watched it from inside a patrol car.

“The car started rocking so I got out. I went in a ditch,” he said.

At about the same time Davis sat in a school hallway, sheriff’s deputy Danny Beavers was driving north in Pope, on Highway 51. Everything went completely black, he said, then the wind picked up the rear end of his patrol car.

“I was driving north,” Beavers recalled, “and then it blew my car and I was pointed west.”

“It was so loud — the hail beating on the top of the car. I couldn’t hear the radio traffic,” Beavers said. “They’re laughing at me, because I was screaming over the radio, but it was too loud to hear a thing.”

Panola County, from Crenshaw to Courtland, was bubbling with similar first-hand stories this week after Mother Nature seemed to grab Mississippi by the throat, for two entire days, and refuse to let go.

A spokesman for the National Weather Service in Memphis said funnel clouds that criss-crossed the county Tuesday and Wednesday failed to touch down in Panola County.

The agency does not keep a record of funnel clouds unless they cause serious injuries or destruction, he said.

Still, Panola County got pummeled good, mostly by floodwaters, and the county is included among 39 Mississippi counties that were declared a State of Emergency late Wednesday by Gov. Haley Barbour.

There have been Mississippi deaths — 32 of them — blamed on tornadoes and floodwaters, and that number could rise, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency announced.

Monroe County, in northeast Mississippi, was hardest hit: at least 13 deaths were reported there, when a tornado touched down in Smithville about 3:45, according to Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. 

Whole neighborhoods were leveled in the community of 900, where survivors walked among ruins in a daze, the newspaper reported.

Emergency workers were moving from home to home in Smithville, painting an orange “X” to indicate bodies inside.

In Panola County, where no deaths or injuries have been reported, three storm systems pummeled the northern portion of Panola County Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.

In Crenshaw, floodwaters entered homes and winds toppled trees onto five homes. More than 70 people have been evacuated from flooded homes along Highway 3.

Baseball-sized hail fell in Como — and broke the windshield of a sheriff’s deputy’s patrol car.  

On Wednesday morning, the menacing storm system, which would devastate Smithville hours later, shifted south to Batesville and communities further southward.

A thunderstorm warning for Panola County, issued by the National Weather Service, became a tornado warning about 8:30 Wednesday morning. 

“I’ve been nervous and I’ve been scared, but I’ve never been that scared,” Daniel Cole, Panola County’s EMA director, said after he rode out high winds and a hailstorm on a river levee Wednesday afternoon.   

South of Crowder, Cole endured fierce winds atop the levee at the Little Tallahatchie River, where he had parked his truck to watch for rising floodwaters. The real trouble came behind him, from a boat and trailer he was hauling, because the winds batted the boat and trailer around.

Fast-moving floodwaters swept into at least two homes in Courtland, and a family was evacuated, using the boat behind Cole’s truck, from a mobile home at 5597 Eureka Road.

Floodwaters were receding during the rescue, though firefighters at the scene said four-foot-high water had been lapping at the home’s front door.

County road crews were working down a list of approximately 50 county roads where damage was reported, said Panola County road manager Lygunnah Bean.

He reported five county roads, or a portion of them, were closed Wednesday evening. The roads are Perkins, Samuel, Shiloh, Holston, and Williams.