Federal aid unlikely after South Pittsburg flooding

Federal aid unlikely after South Pittsburg flooding

July 13th, 2013 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

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Mud covers Randall Killian's floor in South Pittsburg.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.


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 or 423-486-2151.

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. - It's been three days since floodwaters rushed through the streets of South Pittsburg, stripping front yards bare, crumbling pavement and swallowing bridges whole.

City leaders still do not know the full extent of the damage -- how many houses soaked, how many lives altered.

But the city does know one thing: When it comes to help from the federal government, don't be optimistic.

South Pittsburg and Marion County officials met Friday with Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Director James Bassham, among others, to discuss the damage they have discovered so far and what they should do going forward.

"We were told not to get our hopes up about money," City Administrator Sammy Burrows said. "The way all this is set up, it's geared more to the larger disasters -- the Oklahoma Citys, the Joplin, Missouris."

There are two types of federal assistance programs for disasters like this: One helps uninsured people repair their damaged homes, and the other helps local governments fix infrastructure, like roads and bridges.

To qualify for home assistance, a significant number of homes in a city must be damaged. This isn't the case in South Pittsburg, said TEMA spokesman Jeremy Heidt.

And to get funding for infrastructure in Tennessee, the disaster must cause at least $8.5 million worth of damage. Based on early assessments, that didn't happen, either.

"Unfortunately, when it hits one county isolated by itself, it's really tough for it to become a major [disaster] declaration," Heidt said. "You need to hit that state threshold. That requires multiple counties or one county that's been hit terrifically."

The city may may receive other, less dramatic, forms of assistance. For example, Heidt said, people in town may be eligible for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration. But for now, it's too early to tell.

South Pittsburg Mayor Jane Dawkins said insurance estimates indicate that some parts of the city will need significant repairs. One local manufacturer had about $1 million in damage, she said, and South Pittsburg Elementary School took about $800,000 worth. Fixing the high school will cost about $200,000.

Gerald Thomas, a former maintenance supervisor at the elementary school, visited the campus Thursday morning. He saw 18 inches of mud filling one classroom. The gym floor was coated and ruined.

Thomas retired last month, but on Thursday he went back to work. He saw janitors trying to clean the building. Their work wouldn't be enough. Not even close.

Thomas called Belfor, a property restoration team. Cleaners scrubbed and power-washed the building until 10:30 p.m. Thursday and then returned Friday.

In all, about 30 Belfor employees came to South Pittsburg. They worked at the elementary school, the high school and the Senior Citizens Activity Center.

Outside the high school Friday morning, Sheree Fugin took a break from carrying clothes and pillows into the gymnasium.

Fugin volunteers with the South Pittsburg Elementary School Summer Camp. He takes kids on field trips and brings them to the swimming pool and lets them make art. Anything to keep them active.

But with the school damaged, children need a new place to play. So starting Monday, they will report to South Pittsburg High School.

Even with the major damage to certain buildings, though, the city appears to be about $6 million shy of the amount required to receive federal funding.

"Getting FEMA assistance will be very difficult," Dawkins said. "We're not encouraged."

City officials do not know how many houses the flood damaged. Dawkins spent part of Friday afternoon touring neighborhoods with U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais. Some homes are destroyed, she said, and some residents will have to start fresh.

Inside her home at 201 Holly Ave., Nadine Killian warned a visitor walking toward a room in the back of her house.

"Watch out for the mud," she said. "Hold on to the walls, or you'll slip."

Indeed, mud covered the floor. It swallowed a pillow and a power cord, a belt and several hangers.

Outside, in the front of the house, Randall Killian stood next to what was left of his possessions. He and his friends carried furniture and books to the sidewalk, where they were safe and dry, for now.

There are several houses like Killian's in South Pittsburg.

But city leaders don't know exactly how many there are, and who needs help the most.

They will try to get a grasp of the problems today, when they set up disaster relief headquarters inside the volunteer fire department.

Anyone with home damage can fill out a form and share his or her problems with the city.

Members of the Monterey, Tenn., Lions Club, First Baptist Church of South Pittsburg and Kimball Church of Christ have said they are ready to help.

But Burrows, the city administrator, said city officials don't know where to put volunteers, not yet.

Maybe, he said, that will change soon.

"We're just hoping to get to the end of this thing."

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.