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Repeat rainstorms pound towns, county

By Keeli Parkey
Staff Writer
[email protected]
Unicoi County was not exempt from the deluge of water that descended on Northeast Tennessee Sunday evening. Heavy rains led to flooding in the northern end of the county on Sunday, causing property damage, evacuations and road closures.
“It came so hard, so quick and so fast that it was unreal,” Sheriff Mike Hensley said on Monday. “It was the Buffalo Mountain side of Unicoi, that’s where the water came from off the mountain …
“I got called at approximately 7 o’clock,” Hensley also said.
“We were receiving several calls on the north end of the county. Pippin Hollow Road, Harris Hollow Road, Nelson Hollow Road – all that was completely cut off. It was blocked and the roadway was washed out.”
Hensley said he “immediately called in all the officers” and began sending them to various locations on the north end of the county.
“Downtown Unicoi, Massachusetts Avenue below Unicoi school, all that was flooded,” Hensley also said. “The intersection of Pinnacle Road and Massachusetts Avenue had been cut in two and we put up barricades there. McInturff Springs Road off of Pippin Hollow Road was cut completely in two.”
In the area of Pippin Hollow and Harris Hollow, Hensley said residents were evacuated from their homes.
“We had problems getting to some of those folks,” Hensley said. “Auxiliary officers, especially Bart Ray, went in on foot with the help of the fire departments and was able to reach people.”
Some residents decided to remain in their homes instead of evacuating, according to Hensley.
“They got on the second story of the house,” Hensley added.
Hensley also said that on Sunday night, Unicoi Drive from Buffalo Valley to the county line was closed because it was “completely under water.”
The Tennessee Highway Patrol Strike Team was also called to the county.
The American Red Cross set up a shelter at Unicoi Elementary. Pentecostal Holiness Church, New Hope Baptist Church and Unicoi County High School were also opened by county officials to be used as shelters Sunday evening.
Several local fire departments, as well as the Unaka Mountain Search and Rescue team responded on Sunday.
“The town of Unicoi got hit hard,” Hensley said. “We did not know the extent of the damage we had as far as property and homes.”
On Monday morning, Hensley, Road Superintendent Terry Haynes and town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch surveyed the damage.
“We have several private drives that are impassable,” Hensley said.
No injuries have been reported as a result of the storm.
“We were well prepared,” Hensley said. “All of the officers did an excellent job. I couldn’t ask for a better response.”
According to Hensley, a similar flood hit the south end of Unicoi County in 1977.
Another storm, which came through Unicoi County on Friday, drenched the town of Erwin and caused flooding in several areas.
“I was told from the weather service that we received 2.38 inches of rain within 30 to 45 minutes on Friday,” Erwin City Recorder Randy Trivette said on Monday. “What happens when you get that amount of rain with the rooftops, the roads, the driveways and the ground already saturated from the rain we’ve had all month, the water can’t soak in and it just runs off.”
Heavy rains began to fall between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Friday afternoon and caused flooding in downtown Erwin, the Old Farm subdivision, in the areas along Seventh Street, on Rex Lewis Road and along Zane Whitson Drive adjacent to Fishery Park.
“We had crews down there trying to keep it flowing the best we could,” Trivette said. “The water just rushed through town as fast as it could.”
Erwin Town Hall was not immune from the flooding.
According to Trivette, 6-8 inches of water flooded the building’s basement, which houses the Erwin Police Department.
“The big issue is that with so much water the sewer line filled up with water and so all the floor drains and sewer line drains weren’t able to drain, but there was so much pressure and so much water on them that it was coming back into the building,” Trivette said. “We were putting sandbags at the door and the water was coming up behind us through the floor drains.”
Chief of Police Regan Tilson said on Monday that the EPD offices were dry and that very limited damage had occurred to the building.
“We lost one computer, which isn’t bad considering how many we have in this office,” Tilson said. “There was no significant loss at all.”
Water did get inside two police cruisers, but the vehicles were dried and are operational.
“We did a lot of cleaning in the office on Saturday,” Tilson also said. “We had a company come in to help us dry out the carpet and the flooring … The records were all okay. No evidence was damaged.”
Also on Saturday, Trivette and Public Works Director Mark Lafever visited the downtown businesses to assess the damage caused by Friday’s storm. While some businesses were damaged by the floodwaters, most were not.
“Fortunately, as bad as it was through Main Street, there were some stores that suffered some damage, but it was very limited,” Trivette said. “It wasn’t what you would have thought with the amount of water that was going down through there.”
Trivette praised the employees of the town of Erwin for their work during the storm.
“The police, the fire department and the street department worked together to coordinate where they needed to be and what needed to happen to try and protect people’s lives and property,” he said. “They did a fantastic job.”
Even though the town has worked to prevent nuisance flooding, Trivette said storms like the ones that drenched the region on Friday and Sunday cannot be contained by preventative measures.
“This is one of those storms that no matter what controls we had in place, no matter how good our ditch system and storm water system is, it was just more water than anything can handle,” he said.
The town faired better during Sunday’s storm, although homes in Old Farm and on Simmons and Robbins streets experienced flooding during that storm as well.
“They got things cleaned up from the storm on Friday and it hit them again on Sunday,” Trivette said about the homeowners in those areas. “It’s very unfortunate.”
No injuries were reported in the town during either storm.
Several roads were briefly closed in Erwin on Sunday, including a section of Mountainview Road, a section of Zane Whitson Drive and Brown Lane.
Trivette said that homeowners whose living spaces were flooded during Sunday’s storm should get in touch with Unicoi County Emergency Management Director Ed Herndon.
“We are working on adding the dollar amount of damage to see if the governor will declare this a disaster,” Trivette said. “Then people could get some money back if they had damage from the flooding.”