Rainy Night Turns Into Legendary Flood in Tennessee

By KEVIN HARDY, The Times Free Press | July 22, 2013

This is why they call it a flash flood.

A rainy night in South Pittsburg, Tenn., on July 10 quickly turned into something legendary. Relentless rains spawned a newborn river that decided to make its way right through houses, shops and City Hall.

It came with no warning. No sirens. No weathermen urging people to seek shelter. Residents were eating dinner, watching television and heading for bed when the bizarre storm forced water, mud, sand and stones into homes, cars and businesses across town.

Overhead, the stubborn storm sat right on top of South Pittsburg, relentlessly dumping rain.

Drains quickly were overwhelmed and runoff gained momentum barreling down South Pittsburg Mountain.

The rapids hit with the force of an earthquake, tossing cars, killing wildlife and lifting sheets of asphalt the size of trucks. The storm brought with it the randomness of a twister: some homes in near ruins while the ones nearby had only minor damage or none at all.

The short-lived action was intense. Water flowed so fast it hopped right over cars. So loud you couldn’t hear the person across the street yelling.

“I was in the Navy for 20 years. I’ve been in hurricanes. I’ve seen a lot of water. But I’ve never seen water move like that,” said Chris Ferrell, whose yard and backyard pool were overtaken by mud, water and debris.

Yet for all its eccentricities, this storm was akin to other natural disasters this area has lived through.

In the daylight, the community rallied.

Friends and relatives showed up without an invitation. State agencies, restoration companies and news trucks all camped out, at least for a few days, as resilient residents began to peel back the thick, greasy mud that seemed to coat everything.

Volunteers and ministries made their way to town to swing buckets and push wheelbarrows. And in a matter of hours, the unpaid fire crew had washed away the layer of goop that covered the pavement and sidewalks of the main drag, Cedar Avenue.

Good folks passed out cold water bottles and snacks downtown. Some volunteers dug up mud with their bare hands. At the Dixie Freeze restaurant, a man anonymously picked up the lunch tab for a five-man crew taking a break from the cleanup.

Kerry Hoefer, owner of Stevarinos Italian restaurant, still can’t believe how fast everything happened.

In less than 10 minutes, the restaurant was taken hostage by water. He wouldn’t let anyone outside in that river. Before he knew it, the waters had taken his truck and left behind $50,000 in damage to his eatery.

Yet the next day, Hoefer set out a free buffet on Cedar Avenue as he and his staff worked inside to clean out the mess and get the joint opened again.

“There’s a time for commerce,” he said. “And there’s a time for community.”

As residents continue to clean up, attention is turning to the town’s drainage infrastructure, which seemed to fail so horribly. Still, some wondered if any amount of engineering could handle the sheer amount of rainfall that poured over the small town.

The July 10 storms weren’t incredibly intense, said Sam Roberts, a National Weather Service meteorologist. But they were stagnant and ended up dumping upward of 4 inches of rain in just a couple hours.

“They didn’t cover too much distance,” Roberts said. “They just hovered right over South Pittsburg.”

Some of the hardest-hit residents are worried that a culvert running down the middle of town is too easily blocked up and too small to handle large amounts of rainfall. The culvert dives underground and pushes runoff toward the Tennessee River. But the culvert filled and the rapids took to the streets instead.

“The culvert is too small. And when you get a lot of trees in front of it, it just blocks the whole thing up,” said Joe Moore, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church, which sits just blocks away from the beginning of the ditch.

Many valley residents also blame adjacent South Pittsburg Mountain for worsening drainage, saying an uptick in development and logging has led to erosion and runoff problems.

“There’s something going on on the mountain that’s making a difference,” said Bobby Vinson, who owns Private Logo downtown. “That’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Marion County Mayor John Graham said mountaintop development has only ramped up in the last 10 to 15 years. Residents and officials alike have wrestled with how best to control its effects.

Graham said it’s probably time to examine mountaintop growth and what, if any, regulation might be needed. But in the meantime, he wants to make sure the creek that ushered destruction down the mountain is clean and clear.

“If this creek is filled up, then it needs to be cleaned out,” he said. “That’s where we have to start.”

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