Stoney Creek apparently Carter County's 'tornado alley'

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   There have been three tornadoes touch down in Carter County since the late 1970s. For some reason, they all have been drawn to the Big Sandy area of Stoney Creek.
   Jim Burrough, director of Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday night's F-1 tornado, like the Category Zero tornado of 1998, hit on both sides of the highway. "The one in 1998 was probably a quarter mile up the road from where this one was. The first one that hit was in timber back on the lefthand side right before you start up Iron Mountain." It also was classified a Category Zero tornado.
   Burrough said Howard Waldron, warning coordinator for the National Weather Service in Morristown, toured the Big Sandy area Thursday at his request "because we were borderline on whether it was a tornado or not. Come to find out, it was a F-1 tornado. F-1 is a little rougher than a zero and a 5 is the worst."
   The tornado struck at 11:13 p.m., with the blunt of it concentrated in the 2760 area of Big Sandy and right in front of Big Sandy on the highway. "We had six mobile homes that were damaged, two of those were destroyed; six homes were damaged; three sheds were destroyed and three barns were heavily damaged," he said. There were no serious injures and no livestock reported killed.
   Susie Myers, who lives in Big Sandy, said she and her family were watching wrestling and "Law and Order" on television when a warning came across the bottom of the screen on Channel 5 "that it was bad in Kentucky and it was moving down. Then Channel 5 went out. We turned it to Johnson City. It was just fading. The picture went off but then you could hear it, and then it just went 'boop!' and the power went off.
   "It was scary for about 10 minutes. The lightning just lit up the sky and you could hear the popping and cracking. We had like 10 poplars that cracked and split. They all have to be cut down," Myers said. "Our second neighbor down, a tree went through the kitchen. It got the trees instead of our places. That was good for the Lord to take care of us that way."
   Myers said the poplar trees were about 50 to 60 years old. "My dad bought the land and cleaned it off and kept the good trees and they just growed all these years. Now they're gone. My daddy died about 34 years ago. Then my mother gave my brother and me this land. Most people say a tree's a tree. But they just meant a whole lot to me. It's like memories -- you can't remake them."
   Burrough, who had been up all night and was still going at 4 p.m. Thursday, faxing damage assessments to the governor's office, said it was too early to release any dollar figures.
   "John Holtsclaw's office does our damage assessments because they've been trained and qualified for this type of thing. We've got some figures but this was really a preliminary damage assessment," Burrough said. He estimated damage would be in the thousands of dollars. "It won't get to millions."
   It takes $25 million to get a presidential declaration of a disaster, according to Burrough, but if several counties have damage, the figures will be combined to meet the criteria. "Actually your counties are supposed to touch, but they got a waiver for it last year and the governor signed it and let us pick up Shelby County and that gave us enough."
   Responders to Wednesday night's emergency included Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department, Carter County Sheriff's Department, Carter County Rescue Squad, Elizabethton Fire Department Chief Mike Shouse, Carter County Highway Department, Tennessee Department of Transportation, Elizabethton Electric System, Sprint, Elizabethton/Carter County American Red Cross, Amateur Radio Service and Constable Landon Pritchard.
   Electricity, telephone and cable services were knocked out from the Hurley Hollow area to Livingston Hollow, according to Carter County Deputy Lt. Mike Fraley. Burrough estimated nearly 1,000 residents were without electricity, one mobile home was flipped over, and timbers were blown through another which was moved about 18 inches off its foundation.
   "There were a lot of trees down, and they were huge trees. That's probably some of the biggest trees I've seen uprooted," he said.
   The Red Cross came in to take care of any immediate needs, he said, however, "We didn't open up a shelter. Everybody had a place to go.
   "I have to hand it to Stoney Creek, especially Hunter Elementary, they do their tornado drills regularly and they do an outstanding job. I've been up and watched them. It just so happens that every one of these has been at night, but that doesn't mean they're all going to hit at night."
   Burrough said last week's wreck involving a prison van was a carbon copy of a disaster drill emergency responders simulated at Elizabethton High School.
   Thursday evening as Myers watched another approaching storm, she said, "The Lord took care of us last night. I just hope He takes care of us tonight."
   Curiosity seekers were out at all hours following the storm she said, and were steadily driving by Thursday. "We've had so much traffic, you'd think it was Christmas."