A Yazoo County Sheriff’s Department warning of imminent flooding in a subdivision near Yazoo City was misinformed, a state official says, and the claim risked an unnecessary evacuation as severe weather battered central Mississippi on Wednesday.

“If you or someone that you know lives in the Eastbrook subdivision on Highway 16 in Yazoo County you need to evacuate IMMEDIATELY!!! The levee is about to break on the lake and the houses will flood. Please get out ASAP!!!” the sheriff’s department wrote on its Facebook page on April 10. The warning drew widespread media coverage, including in an Associated Press story that the Crirec and other publications republished.

There was one problem: The Eastbrook subdivision was not about to flood, nor was the levee moments from breaking. A video that WLBT Meteorologist Chase Franks shared on Twitter of the access road to the subdivision awash in water helps to explain the confusion, but the flood of water to the other side of the levee is natural: a culvert channels water from the lake when it overflows by design.

Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Dam Safety Division Chief Willie McKercher explained the situation in an interview with the Crirec late on Wednesday.

“The Eastbrook subdivision is built up around the lake impounded by the dam that was at risk,” McKercher said. Most of the homes in that subdivision are intentionally built high enough that they would not flood even had the levee failed, he added. If it had, only a single home would have potentially flooded—and emergency services were already on hand to evacuate its residents.

A flooded road with exposed dirt on the side and water is spilling over rapidly
Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Dam Safety Division Chief Willie McKercher explained on Wednesday, April 10, 2024, that the risk to the Yazoo County levee came from an undersized culvert. Photo courtesy Jack Willingham

Ultimately, the levee was not breached. Another issue caused the water to spill over the road: the culvert built to channel floodwaters is simply too small, a perennial issue for the little community.

“A year and a half ago the pipe got clogged,” resulting in the same wash over the road, McKercher explained. “Today, it’s just that the pipe is undersized, and it couldn’t release enough water before the lake filled.”

Because of the pipe issue, more catastrophic rain could have eroded the roadway and potentially caused the levee to fail. But the sheriff’s department’s emergency warning posed a different risk, the MDEQ official explained.

“The dam is the main route of access in and out of that subdivision. If people rushed home to try to do that because they think their home will get washed out, they could get in the way of emergency workers,” McKercher said.

Yazoo County Director of Emergency Management Jack Willingham spoke with the Crirec on the morning of Thursday, April 11, and explained that the warning likely came down to a simple miscommunication.

“We evacuated only one family and advised the people on the other side of the levee that they might want to leave,” Willingham said. The risk was not a flooded home, but temporary isolation if the road collapsed.

A post on the Yazoo County Emergency Management Agency’s Facebook page accurately captured the situation. “We are currently on scene in Eastbrook Subdivision off of Highway 16 East dealing with water over the roadway and a leaking dam,” it read. “We have fire, law enforcement, and emergency management personnel on scene assisting. We are in the process of contacting all individuals who are impacted by this event. EASTBROOK SUBDIVISION IS THE ONLY PLACE THAT IS AFFECTED BY THIS EVENT AT THIS TIME!!”

“I think there was a miscommunication somewhere between a deputy and the Sheriff,” Willingham explained. But he was quick to point out that the Yazoo County Sheriff’s Department had acted in good faith.

“I’m not saying that the Sheriff did wrong,” he said. “He was acting on what he understood from his deputy.” As soon as the Sheriff’s Department reconnected with the emergency management team, they edited their social media post to reflect the accurate warning, overwriting their earlier message.

The Yazoo County Sheriff’s Department did not return a request for an interview by press time.

McKercher said the averted crisis could serve a purpose. “It brought attention to the folks responsible for the dam that they need to address the (undersized) pipe … If that road goes, you wouldn’t have access for emergency response vehicles until after the road is rebuilt and restored.”

But the officials interviewed for this story said it isn’t Yazoo County that could make the replacement. The lake—and the levee—is the property of the subdivision’s Homeowners’ Association.

As for the storms that battered Yazoo County, Willingham said he was happy to report no injuries or deaths. Statewide, two people died and at least 179 homes suffered damage during the storms this week, which included an EF-1 tornado in Hinds County on Tuesday and an EF-0 tornado in Madison County on Wednesday, Gov. Tate Reeves said on Thursday.

Nick Judin began his career in journalism at the Jackson Free Press in 2019, coming on as State Reporter to cover the 2020 legislative session. That posting quickly gave way to a year leading the JFP’s COVID-19 coverage. Nick’s reports from the frontline of coronavirus have repeatedly made national headlines, as he has asked hard questions of state leadership and done critical interviews with the state’s top public-health experts. Email the Jackson, Miss., native at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin.