This house along Wiltshire Drive in Gray was among many to suffer damages from a tornado that touched down Sunday evening. (Photos by Becky Campbell/Johnson City Press)
It’s official — the National Weather Service station in Morristown confirmed the storms that ravaged parts of Washington and Sullivan counties over the weekend were tornadoes.
Preliminary NWS data indicates that two EF-1 tornadoes touched down in the region Sunday evening, which had an average maximum wind speed of 105 mph.
On the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which NWS uses to classify tornadoes, EF-1s are on the weaker end, with winds reaching speeds of anywhere from 86 to 110 mph.
According to NWS data, the first tornado to touch down did so along Rock Springs Road in Colonial Heights at around 5:45 p.m. Sunday. Although the tornado had a duration of one minute, according to NWS, its winds reached a peak speed of 110 mph and it traveled 1/2 mile down Rock Springs, damaging four homes in the process.
The tornado that would make its way through Gray residential neighborhoods began 3.7 miles southwest of Colonial Heights at around 5:47, according to NWS. Although the Gray tornado had a slower maximum wind speed of 100 mph, NWS estimated it had a 15-minute duration and traveled 7.1 miles in a southeasterly direction. Free Hill Road, Field Stone Drive and Wiltshire Road were among the hardest-hit areas of Gray.
Carla Lane, who lives on Wiltshire Road, said she and her family were home when the storm hit. She saw clouds swirling in different directions just before the rain started.
“You could hear it start to rain and there was little pea-sized hail,” she said. Then suddenly the sky turned very dark and Lane busied herself getting her 16-year-old daughter and the family dog to the basement.
Lane’s husband was on their back deck trying to video the storm as it came over a ridge behind their home.
“The whole sky was filled with tree limbs and debris,” Lane said. When she got downstairs and looked out the glass door leading to a downstairs deck, Lane said, “I could see our metal porch furniture going by the door.”
Lane said she has been home for numerous other storms, but this was the first time she was really scared.
“It was like the Wizard of Oz. It really was,” she said. Lane never saw an actual funnel cloud, just clouds swirling in opposite directions.
After it was over, Lane said “everybody came out and started working” to clean up debris.
Parts of a nearby barn that blew away were in the Lanes’ pool and a firefighter from the Sulphur Springs Volunteer Fire Department climbed in and retrieved it, she said.
A couple of houses away, James Mitchell was collecting the broken pieces of a gazebo that once sat on his deck. Mitchell said he saw the storm top the ridge and head toward the neighborhood.
“The trees on the ridge were moving and bending and nothing (down) here was moving,” he said. “I didn’t see a funnel. It was a sheet of rain.”
Mitchell was prepared to hunker down in the basement overnight — he had gathered a little food, water and flashlights — with his family.
But the storm passed over in just a few minutes, he said.
Further back in the neighborhood Monday morning, Lynn Ramsey was assessing numerous trees down in her yard. She and her family took refuge in a neighbor’s basement, so she didn’t see the storm as it passed through.
After the storm passed, onlookers flocked to the neighborhood to see the damage. Ramsey said traffic was as bad as Halloween night when her street is jammed with cars shuttling children for trick-or-treating.
Washington County sheriff’s deputies rounded up those onlookers and escorted them from the area so emergency personnel could get busy with cleanup operations.
Other areas of Washington County were also hit by the storm, including neighborhoods near the Appalachian Fairgrounds. Also, a downed power line on Cherokee Road caused it to be closed for a portion of Monday.
Nes Levotch, Washington County Emergency Management Agency director; Johnny Deakins, Highway Department superintendent; Charles Baines, Solid Waste Department director; and Judy Wasik, a Tennessee Emergency Management Agency representative, gathered to agree on and implement priorities.
“I have not had any requests for welfare assistance, which is pretty amazing,” Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said.
Levotch said that overall the damage caused by Sunday’s storms was minimal. However, he described several residences in the northeastern part of the county that took “direct hits.” Still, he said the biggest problem right now is the large amount of timber in and on houses, power lines and on roads.
During Monday’s County Commission meeting, Eldridge requested commissioners vote to pull $50,000 from the general fund balance to help pay for disaster relief following Sunday’s storms. The vote was unanimous.
County department heads also met Monday about the cleanup effort and to make sure roads were clear and to double-check on the well being of county residents.
Eldridge suggested they get the word out to property owners that the county would help retrieve and dispose of both trees, limbs and brush, as well as debris from damaged property. He asked that residents separate the tree limbs from the other debris and try to limit the length of the objects to 12 feet.
Residents should expect to see county trucks by mid-week. Deakins and Baines said crews are out helping get the largest trees and limbs off roads and power lines, and a portion of Ford Creek Road was the last throughway to be cleared.
Wasik was dispatched to the area to assess the damage. Her initial take on the situation was that she “found much less than anticipated.” Officials informed Wasik of barns and other properties, and she said she would be visiting these sites.
The monetary threshold for damage statewide required for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to step in with financial and other aid is $8 million, Wasik said.
“We won’t know until we get the numbers,” she said. “If it looks like we meet the threshold we’ll contact the governor, and he will contact FEMA.”
While county residents may have to wait for debris trucks, they did not have long to wait before seeing utility trucks tend to storm damage.
After the tornadoes disrupted electrical service for as many as 4,000 customers, Johnson City Power Board crews worked through the night attempting to restore power to customers in Johnson City, Gray, Boones Creek, Colonial Heights and the Fordtown Road area. A JCPB news release said that by 9 p.m. Sunday, power had been restored to approximately 3,000 of those homes.
That number dropped to less than 30 by mid-Monday morning, with power crews still working to repair the rest. By Monday night, according to Brian Bolling, JCPB’s chief customer relations officer, service had been restored to all but five homes.
“If we had to really pinpoint the areas with the most damage, they would be Cherokee Road, that section of I-81 and I-26, the Fordtown Road area, Gray and the Piney Flats area near Boone Lake,” Bolling said. “Those seemed to be hit the hardest.”
While the tornadoes may have been responsible for outages in Northern Washington County, residents of Cherokee Road lost service during a thunderstorm that occurred almost six hours later. At around midnight, during a second storm that occurred in South Johnson City, a fallen tree damaged five spans of wire and cut off service to an additional 600 homes.
“About midnight, we were down to 300-some customers (without power),” Bolling said. “Then it popped back up, and it was because of the Cherokee Road incident.”
Bolling added that service was restored to those 600 customers by 9:30 a.m. Cherokee Road was closed while the JCPB conducted those repairs, and remained closed until around 5 on Monday afternoon as additional crews completed repairs on fiberoptic lines.
Of the five remaining houses without power, Bolling said, three of them sustained damage to their home’s wiring.
Bolling said that customers can access the Johnson City Power Board map at www.jcpb.com. From this map, viewers can see the number of outages per community or ZIP code and where crews are working.
To Johnson City Power Board customers that are still without power, Bolling said: “At this point, we just ask them to be patient a little longer.”
Elizabethton also saw customers lose power as the storms progressed southeast into Carter County, though not on the same scale as Washington County. Rob Toney, general manager of the Elizabethton Electric System, said the storm led to power outages for about 250 to 300 customers.
As the storm left Washington County and pushed further southeast, Carter County officials braced for its impact as well, but never felt the full brunt.
Sheriff Chris Mathes said there was no significant damage reported in Carter County from the storm.
Staff writers Gary B. Gray, John Thompson, Max Hrenda and Elizabeth Saulsbury contributed to this report.