'Wagon Wheel' song lures Hurricane Irma evacuee to Johnson City

Zach Vance • Sep 11, 2017 at 7:59 PM

Fleeing their home in Naples, Florida, on Thursday, Justin Ross, his wife, Elisa, and two dogs just wanted to find safe refuge away from Hurricane Irma’s projected path of destruction. 

Stuck in heavy traffic — with no luck finding hotels in any of the major cities — Ross, who’s a solo musician, began thinking of songs, and ironically enough, Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” popped into his head.

The song goes, “Walkin' to the south out of Roanoke, caught a trucker out of Philly had a nice long toke. But he's a heading west from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City, Tennessee.” Of course, the song’s lyrics are out of whack, given that Johnson City is east of Cumberland Gap.

Despite the misdirection, that lyric brought Ross and his wife to Johnson City, and into the arms of a community eager to offer assistance. 

“We basically went through all the major cities trying to find a place where they would take the dogs. I started going through songs ... and ‘Wagon Wheel’ is the whole reason I’m here,” Ross said before performing at the WillowTree Coffeehouse on Monday afternoon. 

Once Ross arrived in town Friday, exhausted from a 24-hour drive, he walked into a gas station and saw Friday’s edition of the Johnson City Press with the headline “Tri-Cities offers shelter from Irma” on the front page.  

The story notified Ross and other readers about a Facebook group, established by Kiran Sing Sirah and Ren Allen, where people were posting available rooms and supplies for Hurricane Irma evacuees. 

“I was going to the store to get some water, saw the story on the front page of the paper and I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ I logged into Facebook, joined the group and started talking to people. Everyone’s just been amazing,” Ross said. 

Within 12 hours of it being created, the Facebook group garnered over 300 members, and as of Monday afternoon it had ballooned to 1,176 members. Sirah estimated about 75 to 80 offers for assistance had been posted. 

Although he had already booked a stay at the Carnegie Hotel, it was the Facebook group’s sense of community that was truly beneficial for Ross, who actually booked two music gigs while in Johnson City through the group’s contacts. 

“It’s just such a beautiful community here and so supportive,” Ross said. 

Another evacuee, Emery Grant, fled his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and found shelter in Johnson City with his friend Sirah. 

Grant initially turned down Sirah’s offer for help, but as weather forecasts grew grimmer throughout last week, he took that offer for help and began the long drive to Northeast Tennessee on Wednesday. 

Grant, Sirah and about a dozen members of that Facebook group attended Monday’s “Hootenanny” at the WillowTree to support Ross and discuss strategies on how to continue benefiting evacuees. 

One of those Facebook group members offering assistance is Johnson City Mayor David Tomita, who opened up an empty three-bedroom house to anyone in need. 

“I have always said that our town is special, and that we’re a caring community,” Tomita said. “Nobody asked them to do anything. They just did it, and that’s the fabric of our community and I’m proud to be their mayor.” 

Tomita said city officials don’t yet know the number of evacuees who fled to Johnson City, but he expects to learn more in the coming days. 

From speaking to neighbors back home, Grant and Ross both said their homes are still intact, but facing widespread power outages, water outages and gas shortages, both expect to stay in town a few more days before heading back home. 

“Our neighbors have driven past (our house) and said it looks OK. We’ve lost some shingles, our fence is down and our yard is destroyed,” Ross said. 

“We just want to say thank you to the people here in Johnson City and Jonesborough. (It’s) just amazing. We will definitely come back, hopefully under better circumstances.” 

Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.