ERWIN — Classes at Love Chapel Elementary School will not be held for the remainder of the week following the Saturday morning discovery of a large sinkhole near the school.
Now officials are working to implement a short-term plan and develop a long-term plan to ensure the school’s approximately 250 students can continue their education in a safe manner. Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown said Monday afternoon the details of the school system’s short-term student relocation plan will be released this morning.
“We’re trying to keep those students together, and it’s a major process as we start undertaking that because we’re going to move some other teachers and other rooms, but our hope is to keep those classes together and have them in place, hope- fully by Monday, to where we can continue their education,” Brown said of the school system’s shortterm relocation plan.
Brown also said officials are working to develop a long-term plan to address the matter, and more information on this plan will become available after she meets with the school s y s t e m ’s insurance provider, which Brown said she expected to meet with Monday evening. In the m e a n t i m e , Brown said the insurance provider has advised that no one be allowed on school grounds or in the building.
“At this point, as director of schools, I will not allow students to go back into this building,” Brown said.
The sinkhole was reported at approximately 9 a.m. Saturday by someone walking in the area of the school. Brown said she ordered the sinkhole be filled in an effort to stabilize it, prevent potentially hazardous situations and keep the sinkhole from moving closer to the school. Unicoi County Superintendent of Roads Terry Haynes said by the time crews had arrived to begin work to address the sinkhole, it had grown to around 25 feet across. Haynes said crews dumped around 100 tons of rock into the sinkhole before any measurements were taken. After this material was dumped, Haynes said the sinkhole measured 122 feet deep with around 20 feet of water inside.
Haynes said Monday that crews worked through the day Saturday to fill the sinkhole, which was completed around 1:30 a.m. Sunday. In all, Haynes said a little more than 60 truckloads of rock, made up of boulders averaging several tons apiece and gravel, were placed in the sinkhole. Haynes said the bank around the sinkhole appears to have been stabilized and the rock used to fill it has not moved since Sunday morning.
“It’s doing its job,” Haynes said. “What we put in there is holding up.”
Late last year, a sinkhole opened up under a swimming pool at a residence located on Bradshaw Woods Road. This sinkhole was located around 300 feet in a straight line from the one that opened up at Love Chapel on Saturday. Brown said two engineers were brought in after the residential sinkhole opened, and students were kept off the Love Chapel playground for more than two months.
Haynes said officials checked the area after Saturday’s sinkhole opened and found no further evidence of sinkholes. He said more engineers are expected to be brought in to assess the area.
“Right now, there’s no one who knows what’s causing it,” Haynes said. “It has to do with the water it looks like right now, but we don’t really know until those guys get in here and give us some kind of reason why, if they can. We may never know.”
The majority of the school, which is located on Love Station Road, was constructed around 60 years ago, but the area of the school affected most by the sinkhole was an addition constructed in 1988, Brown said. Brown said officials have observed cracked ceiling tiles in a corner of this area and evidence of movement in the floor and ceiling tiles. Brown also said there are cracks in the walls of the building’s wing.
Brown said a meeting is planned for later this week for parents of school students. More information on this meeting will be released today.
“They’re anxious and wanting to know where the students are going, what’s your long-term plan, and those types of things,” Brown said Monday. “I do plan on releasing that information some time tomorrow (Tuesday). I’ll be having a parent meeting Thursday because I feel like we need to provide all the information and answer any of those questions.”
She also said the county’s board of education is required by state law to keep the system’s fund balance at 3 percent of its total budget, which provides funding for situations such as this.
“The one positive thing for us is our insurance policy does cover sinkholes, so at this point, once they come in and assess it, we would be dealing with them as far as the amount and that our building, our property and our contents are all covered,” she said.
Brown also said it is also fortunate that the sinkhole opened on a Saturday when no students were around.
“All I can say is God is gracious and that is tremendous blessing that it happened on a Saturday,” she said.