A slow-moving storm dumped a deluge of rain on East Tennessee Sunday afternoon that crippled parts of Johnson City and Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties.
The storm tapped every available emergency response resource in the area, forced numerous residents from their homes and shut down some Johnson City services for today. Officials also opened several shelters in Unicoi County and one in Washington County to assist residents.
According to the National Weather Service in Morristown three to four inches of rain fell within an hour’s time across Upper Northeast Tennessee during the height of the storm.
“It’s just a big area, basically. I have from up in Southwest Virginia all they way down to … northern Georgia. It’s just nothing but rain,” said Jessica Winton, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“It’s been averaging about an inch to an inch and a fourth an hour,” throughout the storm, which moved about 10 mph across the region, Winton said.
The downpour sent streams throughout the region overflowing across roads and even into homes in some parts. More rain was expected through the night.
“We’re actually expecting storms throughout the night,” Winton said. “After this it will probably be more isolated storms. There’s some in Kentucky that are headed this way and so far they’re not severe, they just have flood warnings.”
Officials from emergency management agencies, sheriff’s offices, police departments, volunteer fire departments and street and highway departments responded in their respective jurisdictions to rescue residents from homes and cars and block roads that became impassable.
At least 10 people were rescued from their homes in Washington County and in Unicoi County officers and volunteer firefighters were evacuating other areas as well.
Downtown Johnson City, which has escaped serious flooding in recent heavy rain wasn’t so fortunate Sunday.
Water covered State of Franklin Road between Watauga Avenue and Buffalo Street as well as the streets leading into downtown. Some motorists were trapped in their vehicles when the water first started rising.
The bus lot at the city’s maintenance garage flooded, which damaged numerous buses. Several city schools also flooded and the city canceled school for Monday.
According to Keisha Shoun, a city spokesman, Johnson City Transit services are also canceled today because of the flooding. Other damage included a portion of Oakland Avenue being washed away into a creek.
“Occasionally, we’ve been up to our gun belt in water, but it’s starting to subside,” said JCPD Lt. Gerald Harrell.
“We are actively answering every call for service that we have. It may be taking us just a tab bit longer, but we’re getting to each and every one and we will get to each and every one,” Harrell said.
Area’s hit the worst included downtown Johnson City, the Creekmore Drive and Austin Springs area, Greenwood Drive, Cash Hollow Road and other areas in the county.
The train tracks at Watauga Avenue were also covered, which stopped a Norfolk Southern train from passing for a while.
The Johnson City Police Department urged citizens to stay home and avoid any local travel if possible.
In both Washington and Unicoi counties, the Nolichucky River was not the problem, and neither was the Doe River in Carter County. Instead, the feeder creeks and streams were unable to handle the amount of rain that came down so quickly.
“The main points of flooding are on Dry Creek and Arnold Roads in the lower end, Rock House road in the Cherokee road area and Mosier Road in the Austin Springs area,” said Washington County Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Page.
“There are creeks that run all the way through that area and the water has nowhere to go,” he said.
Page said several off-duty officers were called in to help the regular patrol shift.
“We have officer assigned to (rescue) crews and officers answering calls for service,” he said.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said Dry Creek had “serious” problems and at one point Sunday evening responders were trying to figure out how to rescue two people trapped inside a mobile home surrounded by swift water.
Eldridge also said the county opened an emergency shelter at the Lamar School gym and the Red Cross was there to assist in that.
“Anyone with any issue at all needs to come here,” Eldridge said. The county command post was also set up at the school.
Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes said Elizabethton also ha problems with rising water.
“We’ve got flooding all over. Elizabethton has been hit pretty hard,” he said.
Jenkins Hollow Road was also hard hit and a sinkhole opened up on Sycamore Shoal Drive, Mathes said. “There’s a lot of water coming off the mountain in the Hampton area.”
He also urged residents to stay out of flooded areas in their homes for safety issues.
“It’s way to dangerous in there with electricity and standing water. Don’t go wading through that water,” he said.
Mathes said he pulled seven additional officers in to help the regular shift answer calls and assist residents in flooded areas, and he was also out helping block roads to keep motorists from driving on water-covered roads.
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said he got the call at about 7 p.m. Sunday of fast-rising waters and immediately called in all of his officers.
“We’ve got serious flooding at the north end of the county,” Hensley said. “There are places where the bedding of the railroad has serious damage. CSX has stopped all trains.”
Several residents were evacuated in the Harris Hollow, Phippin Hollow and Nelson Hollow areas. Hensley said as of late Sunday all residents were accounted for and were safe.
He said Unicoi Drive was shut down. Massachusetts Avenue and Pinnacle Road also had serious flooding.
“When they called me, it was barely drizzling,” he said. “When I came in, it was just unreal. The water was coming up and I saw we were going to have serious, serious problems. Everybody has done a great job responding.”
Shelters were opened at Unicoi County Elementary School, Unicoi County High School, Pentecostal Holiness Church and New Hope Baptist Church. The Red Cross was set up at the elementary school.
“I saw it this bad one other time on the south end of the county in 1977 when I was a young deputy,” he said. “What I’m worried about is I’m told there is another batch of rain headed our way.”
It wasn’t just water issues in the area. Some residents were also without power after the storm started.
“We have about 4,000 customers who’ve been affected, most are in Johnson City, but we do have some that are affected in the Lamar area,” said Robert White, chief public relations officer.
“We have put updates on our site and we’ll continue to update it over the evening as we find out more information.”
Most of the outages were problems that could be restored quickly, he said.
Heavy evening rains Sunday flooded several areas of Northeast Tennessee, including downtown Johnson City and numerous sections of Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties.
Johnson City police advised residents to postpone local travel, saying many roads were impassable. Police were working to free stranded motorists in flooded areas. There were some reports of people stranded in homes.
Emergency crews were navigating through downtown waters in inflatable boats in an attempt to reach people trapped by the floods.
There were widespread reports of flooding along numerous city streets, including East and West Unaka Avenue, Austin Springs Road at Oakland Avenue, State of Franklin Road at University Parkway and other areas around East Tennessee State University. Downtown streets were deluged with water. Sections of Buffalo Street and both Main and Market Streets were impassable, and some downtown businesses were flooded. Flooded downtown creeks also swept through the area around the Carver housing development.
Creeks overflowing their banks in the Dry Creek area of southern Washington County struck several residences, including a report of a mobile home where people were surrounded by swift water. Some locations in Dry Creek were inaccessible. An emergency shelter was established at Lamar School.
Johnson City School System officials announced that the scheduled start of the school year on Monday had been postponed because of storm damage. The city of Johnson City's garage complex also flooded, including the school bus and transit system lot, where several buses were under water.
The city canceled transit service for Monday because of the damage.
The Mall at Johnson City's parking lot was covered by high water, stranding numerous vehicles.
Areas along Milligan Highway had high water, including the intersection at Miller Street, as well as Toll Branch Road behind Milligan College, according to comments on Johnson City Press' Facebook page.
Facebook visitors reported that the Watauga River had flooded its banks on the Watauga end of Riverview Drive in Johnson City. The road was impassable. Damage was reported at Silver Creek Apartments off Lakeview Drive, where a creek winding through the complex flooded. South Greenwood Drive at Lone Oak Road was covered by high water, and a house there was reportedly surrounded by water. Carmel Village mobile home park had about five feet of standing water.
Areas of Elizabethton were flooded, as well, including businesses along West Elk Avenue. Further north, flooding was reported along Carroll Creek Road.
Unicoi County residents experienced flooding, as well, including along Massachusetts Avenue and Laughren Road in Unicoi and Fanning Avenue in Erwin, according to Facebook visitors.
Flooded basements, roof leaks, apartment, business and home damages and other storm-related woes were widely reported in the area.
The Johnson City Power Board reported around 8:45 p.m. that about 4,000 customers were without power, mainly in Johnson City. All outages were isolated, except near Lamar where a crew was working to restore a breaker.
The Power Board reported that the Dry Creek/Arnold Road area would remain without electrical service through the night at the request of emergency officials. Rescuers reported that a house was floating near power lines, so power remained off for safety.
Staff writer Don Armstrong contributed to this report. Email Becky Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Email Jennifer Sprouse at email@example.com.