published Saturday, January 11th, 2014

Some homeowners still without water after polar vortex blows pipes

Owner Nick Bowers surveys damage in the Pickle Barrel after sprinkler pipes broke when they thawed, causing a partial ceiling collapse.
Owner Nick Bowers surveys damage in the Pickle Barrel after sprinkler pipes broke when they thawed, causing a partial ceiling collapse.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Hundreds of homeowners across the Scenic City awoke this week to the horrifying sound of thousands of gallons of water gushing unhindered into their house, as thawing temperatures melted the ice that was holding broken plumbing together.

Those who failed to heed the weatherman's warnings found the consequences of frozen pipes to be an expensive object lesson, though many were foiled by circumstances beyond their control, officials say.

"There's no comparison because we haven't had a cold snap like this," said Stephanie Sinkfield, an agent for State Farm.

State Farm, the largest insurer in Tennessee, counted more than 1,400 claims across the state stemming from the deep freeze that scientists called a "polar vortex," a slow-moving swirl of arctic weather that grudgingly returned to the North Pole after ravaging infrastructure throughout the U.S.

Plumbers reported thousands in Chattanooga with blocked pipes. Hundreds more suffered severe damage, and dozens experienced major damage requiring heavy-duty cleanup and renovation. In those cases, wet sheetrock, soggy furniture and fried electronics all have to be pulled out and replaced, and dangerous mold can become an issue if the cleanup isn't handled professionally.

"There is no area where we're not getting claims for frozen pipes and water intrusion," said Kip Diggs, a spokesman for State Farm. "That thing gets frozen, then it warms up and all that water in the system comes surging through. It just blows pipes up. That's what causes the big mess."

Though help is on the way, many will have to wait through the weekend before water is restored, due to the backlog of calls. Cleanup could take even longer -- months for those whose homes are uninhabitable -- due to the widespread nature of the damage.

In previous storms, insurers and repair crews could flood affected areas with personnel and equipment. But the polar vortex froze most of the U.S., not just the Tennessee Valley, leaving workers engaged everywhere.

"We have the people we need to handle what's going on, we just can't bring as many people into one area as we normally would," Diggs said. "If it was a tornado in a couple of places, or a disaster of that nature, that's something we could do."

In the meantime, insurers urge homeowers to mitigate the damage however they can -- and to save receipts. Whether it's finding the water valve and shutting the flow off at the source, or beginning to mop up standing water and preserve household belongings, insurance companies are typically supportive of efforts that will save money in the long run.

Plumbers are working through the glut of affected homeowners, and expect to at least have water restored for all residents and businesses by Tuesday at the latest. Jeff Logan, owner of Scenic City Plumbing, expects to work the weekend and Monday to deal with the wait list. He received about 200 calls per day, but can only realistically get to 50 jobs daily.

"We've just had to put people on a list," said Jeff Logan, owner of Scenic City Plumbing. "I'm wore out."

-- Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at or 423-757-6315

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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