published Friday, July 12th, 2013

Flood buries South Pittsburg (with video)

Flash flood hits downtown South Pittsburg, Tenn.
Heavy rains late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning brought flash flooding to downtown South Pittsburg, Tenn. The flooding, which left a layer of mud throughout downtown, damaged many area homes and businesses.
Rocks, mud and water caused heavy damage to cars seen parked at the Propect housing development.
Rocks, mud and water caused heavy damage to cars seen parked at the Propect housing development.
Photo by John Rawlston.

HELPING, FINDING HELP

Anyone who wants to assist in recovery efforts in South Pittsburg, Tenn., should contact South Pittsburg City Hall at 423-837-5000. South Pittsburg residents and others in Marion County who need help recovering from the storm should call 423-942-2525.

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — People in South Pittsburg said that in a matter of minutes the town's quaint downtown Wednesday night became a raging torrent that blasted through homes and buildings and piled up cars with telephone poles, mud and rock.

Cecil Long and his wife, Linda, and daughter, Beth, sat on the porch at their Third Street and Pine Avenue home Thursday watching crews try to clean out the culvert across the road.

The culvert, which dives underground at Pine Avenue, is one of the points where the creek overflowed onto the streets.

Floodwaters on Wednesday night carried tons of rock, sand and debris from South Pittsburg Mountain and packed it between the family's car, trucks and front porch.

"It didn't get inside," he said, trying to keep his balance on the impromptu "rock garden" Mother Nature slopped into his yard the night before.

The family managed to get only one of their vehicles moved before the water got too high, they said.

WIDESPREAD DAMAGE

The debris-filled runoff came from a storm Wednesday night that dumped at least 3.5 inches of rain on the small Marion County town in about two hours. Cedar Avenue, South Pittsburg's main drag, was covered with a 1- to 6-inch layer of mud.

Damage in South Pittsburg was widespread, taking in South Pittsburg Elementary School, City Hall, the police department, fire hall, the public water and gas building, and nearly every business on the main drag and dozens of houses, officials said.

"This is unreal," said Emily Hall, owner of Hammers Store, one of the Cedar Avenue landmarks in South Pittsburg. She, her son, Mike, and Ellen Lambert were trying to vacuum part of the store where a small lake had formed about 6 inches deep just in front of the children's department.

The muddy floodwater hit the store from behind and flowed right out the front doors.

"Everything on the tables is fine," Hall said, "but we do have a lot of shoes and boots on the floor, especially in the children's department."

Hall had never seen such flooding, "and we've been here for 49 years," she said.

"It could have been worse. But I didn't expect it to do this," Mike Hall said.

Large sections of pavement on Second and Third streets were lifted up and washed into yards, and homes and businesses along both streets showed signs of fast-moving water as high as two feet or more on exterior walls.

"We lost three patrol cars and City Hall got flooded," police Chief Dale Winters said, as he watched a couple of wreckers pulling out water-soaked cars at the corner of First Street and Cedar Avenue.

"It's a mess everywhere," he said, standing gingerly on the grease-like mud that surrounded him.

"We rescued two or three people, we lost three bridges," an exhausted Mayor Jane Dawkins said around midday Thursday at a command post set up at South Pittsburg High School. It'll take a while to assess all the damage and what it will take to clean up, she said.

Dawkins, also a Marion County commissioner, said first responders and emergency officials were out in force immediately.

She used her Facebook page to get the word out before she even got in her car to head for City Hall, she said.

By the time she reached her office, phone calls were coming in, she said. Officials worked quickly to get a shelter established at the local armory and a command post set up at the high school.

Residents on the first floor of the Chester Powell Senior Living Apartment Complex on Cedar Avenue had to be evacuated, she said.

"There's quite a bit of damage, and we are having to relocate some of those folks in alternative housing," she said.

Damaged areas at the elementary school included floors in the cafeteria, hallways and gymnasium. The town's Senior Activities Center has "extensive" damage, too, she said.

"Most every business from First on down to at least Sixth Street has damage," she said, referring to the flood path from the creeks on Second and Third streets.

"Stevarino's [restaurant] just completed a project redoing their floors and it was beautiful. And the water poured in on them," she said.

Officials said Richard City, between South Pittsburg and the Alabama line, and several towns in neighboring Jackson County, Ala., had extensive damage to homes, bridges and roads.

Moss Motors, the Ford dealership on the south end of town, was flooded with some damage to cars, officials said.

REASONS FOR RUNOFF

Dawkins said the runoff might have hit so hard because cleared land on the mountain had not been reclaimed. Another factor that might have made the flash flood worse is the fact that South Pittsburg is sandwiched between South Pittsburg Mountain and the Tennessee River, bisected by creeks and bordered to the north by Battle Creek, she said.

"It's kind of a natural fencing. So when our mountain or the river is disturbed, it definitely makes an impact on our area," she said.

The mayor said a return to normal "could take up to a year."

But it was business as usual at the Dixie Freeze on Elm Avenue, where they were serving up burgers, fries and onion rings to a packed house.

"There was about 3 inches of water back in the kitchen, but they came in and cleaned it all up last night," said Angie Wileman, who works at the restaurant.

Down the street, other office workers and business owners were digging out, sweeping out and drying up the mess.

Charlynn Peoples, office manager at Marion Water and Gas, said customers would have to find her office staff at the warehouse across from the Sonic restaurant until the main office is cleaned up.

FLOOD VIDEO

See video of the actual flooding in the Times Free Press newscast.

"We don't know how long we'll be displaced," she said.

Teresa and Jerry White, owner of Doodle's Emporium, were cleaning up mud and tearing out carpet.

"We slept right through it, actually," Teresa White laughed. The couple lives upstairs over the shop. "It would have been more stressful if we knew it was coming."

Across Cedar Avenue, Randle Pesnell of Valley Janitorial Services was cleaning up the cleanup business.

"We're cleaning up ourselves, and then we'll be helping everyone else clean up," Pesnell said. "It's a mess, but believe it or not, it's good for business."

He had to battle though waist-deep water to get inside his shop Wednesday night to find mud everywhere, damaged vacuum cleaners and two soaked oriental rugs that belonged to customers. He said he expected a busy few days ahead.

Lifelong resident Leonard Wynn said he'd never seen flooding hit the town like it did Wednesday in all his 83 years. He blamed the volume of rain that fell in so short a time.

"I had 4.4 inches in my rain gauge," he said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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