Tornado touches down in Poplarville

Published 1:39 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2009

As a tornado wrecked havoc to a church just yards from their front doorstep, a young couple huddled together in an interior room in their small home in Poplarville with their infant hugged between them.

“It sounded like a freight train coming through our bedroom,” said Springhill Baptist Church youth director Jonathan Toler, who described how both he and wife awoke to the deafening noise.

“My wife woke up and hollered for me to grab our child and as she grabbed him, I just shoved them both into the bathroom,” Toler said, admitting that the two minutes the tornado ravaged outside their home felt more like 15. Once in the bathroom, Toler said they huddled with their eight-month-old son between them, his arms around his wife and son. “It took about two minutes for the train noise to stop,” Toler said of the experience.

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Toler said that even after the noise passed, he still could not see but a few feet beyond the window because of the heavy rain. When the rain began to let up, he realized just how close they had come to greater danger. “The first thing I saw was the steeple sitting in the parking lot,” said Toler, whose home sits about 100 feet from the church.

Fortunately, neither Toler, nor his wife or child suffered any injuries. Their dog, Penny, who had been outside during the storm, quickly came back inside once the Tolers felt safe enough to venture outside of the bathroom to see what had happened. “She came right in then,” he said about his energetic canine as she eagerly fetched a ball over and over.

Pastor Joe Beach said the tornado not only ripped the steeple off the roof of the church, but also caused the new ceiling in the church to ripple like waves on an ocean and fling insulation every which way. “It was definitely a tornado,” said Beach as he pointed to the chaotic damage, adding that the congregation of more than a hundred would probably meet in the church’s Fellowship Hall for the time being. “We could probably have it in here,” Beach said of the church. “But we need to have it inspected first.” The pastor said he expected the damage to the interior of the church to be much more costly to repair than the steeple.

Danny Manley, Pearl River County director of emergency and planning, said the 7:15 a.m. tornado touched ground at the Springhill Baptist Church on Springhill Road and tore the steeple off the church before traveling a short distance toppling trees and breaking others, while also blowing out the rear window of a nearby pick up truck.

“It did not appear to be straight line winds,” Manley said, adding that he was confident it was a tornado based on the haphazard destruction. “Based on the narrow path and length of path, that is indicative of a tornado. Things were thrown in different ways, not like straight line wind damage.”

National Weather Service forecaster Phil Grisby of the Slidell office, said that while some rotation and strong winds were evident on the radar during the tornado warning Monday morning, the NWS would have to go to the location first to survey the damage before officially declaring it a tornado and classifying its strength. “We have to do a survey at the location,” said Grisby, explaining that certain criteria are used to not only determine if it indeed was a tornado, but what strength it was as well.

He said that another possible tornado had been reported in Catahoula, La., near Lafayette, La., where several homes were damaged and some injuries reported.

Grisby said that southern Mississippi was nearing its end of peak season for tornados but that there was still some potential for a tornado. “Generally (tornado season) is during the entire spring season, with February and March the peak months,” he said, adding that October and November were also months to be more aware of possible dangerous weather.

As for the weather system that brought the unexpectedly heavy rains, hail, and tornadoes, Grisby said it would pass by Monday afternoon. “We are letting the tornado watch expire,” he said.

As for Springhill Baptist Church, Beach said he was confident something positive would come of the experience. “I am positive something good will come of this,” he said as he surveyed the damage.