Mother and teen left homeless by April flood in Unicoi County

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated May 7, 2020 at 7:58 PM

ERWIN — At sunrise on the Monday morning after Easter, Holly Apple went out on the porch of her Unicoi County home and looked down to see South Indian Creek at the top of its banks along Hilemon Ranch Road.

Her 18-year-old daughter had parked at the end of their 200-foot driveway, and she sent her down the hill to bring her vehicle up out of danger from the imminent flooding.

Over the next several hours they heard loud cracking noises; Apple assumed it was trees snapping in the flooded creek.

But after 10 a.m., a group of neighbors stopped in front of their house and yelled up to tell them there had been a landslide. Their driveway and the roadside where her daughter had been parked were buried in trees and mud — and they had no way out.

Sheriff’s deputies, volunteers from Erwin’s South Side Fire Department and a geology professor from East Tennessee State University who had come out to see several such slides in the county worked together to bring the mother and daughter down the ridge on ropes.

Apple, who has multiple sclerosis, checked them into a hotel where they stayed for the first week after the disaster.

One of their neighbors cleared the road with his own equipment, and several of the neighbors chipped in to help Apple pay an excavator to clear her driveway and stabilize the ridge above it as much as possible.

They were able to get in and out, but the ridge was still unstable. Heavy rains continued and trees were still falling. Worse yet, the downed trees had damaged a section of their stream-fed water system, and they were without water.

Apple, who grew up with flooding in the Ozark Mountains, lived through hurricanes in Florida and moved to Unicoi County just last year to help her stay active and fight her disabling condition, was for the first time rendered homeless by a natural disaster.

Out of money for a hotel, they moved in with a friend who was under hospice care and in her final days. As a member of her friend’s death with dignity team, Apple made her friend her priority. Her daughter, who at age 18 had followed her mother to Tennessee from Florida to establish residency and attend college here, began what was to be a fast coming of age.

In two short weeks, she landed a job on her first interview. And unable to go home because of the danger, she moved into her first apartment.

Apple’s friend died and, at the request of family members who live out of state, she continues to stay on and look after her friend’s house until her estate is settled while searching for the help she will need to make her own home safe again.

Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, who in the days after the April 13 flooding took state and federal lawmakers on a tour of the widespread damage, has called two of the region’s most effective nonprofit organizations on Apple’s behalf.

Appalachia Service Project sent a home repair assessment team out on Tuesday to look at Apple’s damaged water system. And while rain was once again falling too heavily to safely visit the property, Apple showed them photographs and they encouraged her with their attempt to help.

Meanwhile, the First Tennessee Development District is researching grant-funded assistance programs that might be able to help the cost of repairing Apple’s water system and stabilizing her ridge line.

On the downside, County Commissioner Jamie Harris, the excavator who cleared Apple’s driveway and gave her the frightening news that the slide remains unstable, has told her the cost of stabilizing the problem area will be substantial.

Evely has learned that not enough private homes were damaged in the April 13 flooding to qualify the county for government assistance with individual home repairs. He is still waiting to hear if FEMA will declare the flood a disaster worthy of federal assistance to help repair the numerous roads that were washed out.

Apple, who will not return to her house until an engineer tells her it is safe, is still without a permanent home. But she is thankful to those who have helped her and encouraged by those who are still attempting to help.