South Pittsburg, Tenn., flood victims recall frightening night a week ago

South Pittsburg, Tenn., flood victims recall frightening night a week ago

July 17th, 2013 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Ashley Todd talks on her porch Friday in South Pittsburg, Tenn. Todd's vehicle was caught in floodwater and she had to pull her two daughters, Aija and Amya, to safety last Wednesday night.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.


A week after the streets of South Pittsburg, Tenn., flooded, the recovery effort continues. Highway departments from Jasper, Kimball and Marion County joined a South Pittsburg crew on Tuesday to clean up debris, and the units have completed all necessary road repair. City Administrator Sammy Burrows said officials still do not know how many people were affected by last week's flood, and residents still are reporting problems. Volunteers continue to help clean out and repair houses.

Marion County leaders, meanwhile, are trying to find ways to provide financial aid to South Pittsburg. Because the floods probably did not cause the required $8.5 million in damage, the city will not qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief. Tennessee Housing Development Agency representatives are in the city today assessing the situation.

County Mayor John Graham said his staff is looking into potential federal and state grants. "Anything we can find," he said, "we're going after."

As the water pounded Ashley Todd's Chevrolet Monte Carlo last Wednesday night, she lost control. The car spun, through the road and through the water, and she didn't know what to do. Finally, at the corner of Third Street and Oak Avenue, the driver's-side door bumped a wooden light pole, and the car stopped.

Like many South Pittsburg residents, Todd said the storm happened faster than she expected. She knew it would rain -- 3 to 5 inches by the end, WRCB-TV meteorologist Paul Barys later said -- but she didn't know a flood would follow. She didn't know water would slide off South Pittsburg Mountain, choke the city's main arteries, and fill businesses, schools and homes with mud.

Todd had followed disasters on the news -- tsunamis, mudslides, those sorts of things. This must be what those feel like, she thought as she sat in her car at about 8:50 p.m.

"Daddy!" she heard one of her daughters cry in the back seat.

But he wasn't here. Minutes earlier, the precipitation pelting her windshield, Todd called her husband, Windell. Before she left home at 111 N. Holley Ave. to pick her up her children from vacation Bible school, she knew it would rain. But not like this.

"Baby, there's a flood," she said over the phone.

"Well, I can't get up there," Windell recalled saying in a raspy voice. "There's no way."

Now, her car parked against the pole and water coming in, Todd pressed the emergency brake and pulled her keys from the ignition. She felt calm, calmer than usual. Do the right thing, she thought. Get out of this car, grab these kids, and go.

Todd climbed into the passenger seat and reached back for her daughters. She put 7-year-old Amya under one arm and 5-year-old Aija under the other, and she opened the door and tried to walk out. She thought she would wade through the water, to safety.

But as Todd exited, the water pushed against her, and she fell. The water was as high as the bottom of her chest -- too high for her daughters. So, holding each girl, she drifted southeast down Third Street along with the rush of the flood.

Debris shot past her -- logs, rocks, even tires. Todd felt her skin peel away from one knee, and another, and a wrist.

After drifting two blocks, she hit a tree face first. Now she leaned against the tree, and she looked to her right. There, about 20 feet away, was a door.

At 300 Laurel Ave., Jerry Lacy called his wife, Emma, to the front porch. It was 9 p.m., and Jerry watched amazed as the rain swallowed the streets. He wanted Emma, a guidance counselor at South Pittsburg Elementary, to see.

Minutes later, Emma retreated to her kitchen. There, she heard knocking. It was light knocking, polite knocking.

Jerry didn't hear it, but Emma asked him to check. She didn't know what to expect. There are no windows near their back door.

Jerry turned the knob and pulled it open, and two young girls tumbled inside. Behind them, Todd rolled forward. All three shivered, and Todd yelled something, but her words were incoherent. They were covered with mud and streaks of blood.

But Emma recognized them. She works in the South Pittsburg Elementary cafeteria when Amya and Aija eat lunch every day. And, about 20 years earlier, she taught drug, alcohol and tobacco classes when Todd was in fifth grade.

Two days after the flood, Todd returned to the Lacys' house to let them know she was OK. Bandages covered her wrist and both knees, but she was walking, and laughing and hugging.

Then a neighbor walked over with a set of keys and an attached wallet. They had just turned up in a nearby front yard, and they were Todd's.

"That is amazing!" she said, holding them up to her eyes. Specks of mud dotted each key, and dirt filled her wallet.

She studied them, then said, "I can wash it."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or