The sinkhole at Love Chapel Elementary School.
ERWIN — The Federal Emergency Management Agency has already turned down Unicoi County’s request for disaster assistance due to sinkholes in the Love Chapel area, but the county now has the support of the state’s top emergency agency as it continues to seek aid for those living in the affected community.
Around two weeks ago, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Director James Bassham and TEMA Regional Director Bill Worth paid a visit to Unicoi County to tour the sinkhole that opened next to Love Chapel Elementary School last August.
Unicoi County Emergency Management Director Ed Herndon, who joined Bassham and Worth as they toured the area, said Wednesday that the TEMA officials recognize the financial impact and safety risks sinkholes in the area could present.
“They fully understand the impact upon the community,” Herndon said.
Herndon said he does not appropriate money for disaster assistance, but FEMA would provide 75 percent of disaster assistance funding if a disaster area is declared, with a 25 percent local share. However, Herndon said the TEMA officials would forward the county’s request for assistance to FEMA, with their endorsement, after having toured the Love Chapel area.
After a large sinkhole was discovered on the grounds of Love Chapel Elementary School last August, the county attempted to apply with FEMA for disaster assistance. Herndon previously said the county was informed by FEMA that the agency did not cover sinkholes, as it considered the sinkhole “a pre-existing condition” that would be aggravated by disaster. Love Chapel students were quickly relocated to other county schools after the discovery of the sinkhole. In February, after receiving an engineer’s report indicating that several areas of the school’s grounds showed signs of developing sinkhole activity and others showed signs of developing such activity, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted to permanently close Love Chapel Elementary School.
The sinkhole at Love Chapel Elementary School was the second of two publicized sinkholes that have appeared in the community. In December 2011, a large sinkhole opened under a swimming pool at a residence on Bradshaw Woods Road, located directly behind the school.
Despite being turned down in August, concerns led the Unicoi County Commission to approve a resolution on March 25 to request that FEMA declare the Love Chapel area a disaster area due to the recent sinkhole activity and conduct a study of the area to ensure the safety of residents there.
Copies of the resolution were subsequently sent to area legislators and TEMA officials. In a May 10 letter to Worth, which included a copy of the county commission’s resolution, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch stated that citizens of the Love Chapel community were seeking funding for surveys and mitigation measures, including property buyouts.
“The citizens of this neighborhood are desperately seeking assistance,” Lynch’s letter states. “Because of the possibility of their property collapsing, their property values are dropping and insurance is getting harder to procure. The death in the Tampa, Florida, area has also had an effect upon them.”
After touring the Love Chapel area, Bassham wrote a letter to the county in which he stated that the county’s May 10 letter to Worth is being considered “an official request for federal funding for surveys and appropriate mitigation measures, to include the possibility of buyouts.” Bassham’s letter also stated that TEMA would forward the request to FEMA for its consideration.
“I think they realized because of the depth of the cavern and its proximity to the school, I believe (FEMA is) going to at least give us another look, and that’ll be good,” Lynch said Wednesday.
Herndon said he is unsure how long it may take to receive FEMA’s response, and that the county would “have to wait and see.”
Lynch previously sought to form a county sinkhole task force, but he said little movement on its formation has taken place as he wanted to see if assistance would become available.
“I think we’re sort of wanting to give ease to peoples’ minds out in that area,” Lynch said.