Raging river claims life of one rafter; two others rescued

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

   Heavy rain Tuesday night that extended through Wednesday afternoon left rivers across the Tri-Cities region raging, and the swift currents of the Watauga River caused a boat to capsize, claiming the life of one of three rafters.
   A canoe carrying three males, whose names and ages were not released, turned over in rapids created by flooding around noon Wednesday in the Blue Springs Community. Two of the men were rescued by members of the Carter County Rescue Squad's Swift Water Rescue Team, according to CCRS Director, Terry Arnold.
   The two pulled themselves out of the water, and rescue workers carried them to safety within 30 minutes after they became stranded on a makeshift island of tree roots and debris, according to Arnold.
   The third male drowned when he became pinned underwater. "The boat had flipped over and pinned the guy, and the debris and logs just piled on top of him," Arnold said. "We just couldn't get him out of there because of all of the debris and strong currents."
   Efforts to retrieve the body of the man who drowned continued until dark, when Arnold stated that rescue workers had to give up the recovery mission until Thursday morning.
   The two men rescued were treated on the scene by CCRS personnel but refused to be transported to a local hospital, according to Arnold. "They were just cold and shocked at the loss of their friend," he said.
   In addition to loss of life, many area residents saw their homes and properties damaged as rivers, creeks and streams swelled to the point of overflowing banks.
   Many people in the county had to leave their homes to escape the rising waters. "Earlier this morning we had a lot of evacuations," Elizabethton-Carter County Emergency Management Agency Director Ernest Jackson said. "It seemed like once a lot of the people got out they went to family or friend's houses."
   Jackson said it was hard to get an exact number of those who were forced out of their homes but estimated it to be somewhere around 35-40 at last count Wednesday afternoon.
   Floodwaters began rising in the early morning hours on Wednesday, according to Jackson, and soon after, emergency workers began closing roads which had become too dangerous for safe travel.
   "Highway 91, in several sections, has been closed all day," Jackson said, adding that late Wednesday night officers of the Carter County Sheriff's Department were still diverting traffic away from flooded portions of that highway. Wednesday morning, water surged to more than a foot deep at times in front of Keith Bowers Auto Sales and Salvage on U.S. Highway 91.
   In Hampton, residents along Swimming Pool Road, Stout Hollow, Simmerly Creek and Tiger Creek saw waters rise around their homes. Some residents in those communities chose to evacuate their homes and head for higher ground.
   Waters also rose in the Elk Mills and Poga communities Wednesday morning covering roadways and leaving some people stranded.
   Buffalo Creek overflowed its banks and caused damage in the Milligan community in the west end of the county.
   Streets in the city of Elizabethton were flooded and water bubbled up out of manhole covers. Water from the Doe River surged below the historic Covered Bridge and the Elk Avenue Bridge which is currently being reconstructed. A park near the two bridges was almost entirely covered in water as flood waters raged.
   "It was really wide spread," Jackson said.
   Jackson said he notified the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency early Wednesday morning when the flooding began and stayed in touch with them throughout the day to give them updated reports.
   The American Red Cross provided meals for those who came to two emergency shelters which opened to house people who evacuated their homes as well as emergency workers who were on duty. "We've mostly been feeding the emergency workers," Jim Brice of the American Red Cross said. "We gave out about 125 meals today."
   Beginning tomorrow, the Elizabethton-Carter County EMA will begin conducting flood damage assessments. "The assessment will aid our office in locating damage to homes and properties as a result of floodwaters," Jackson said. "This assessment is not to be a replacement for any assessment which should be performed by your insurance company representative. Nor does this assessment guarantee homeowners any amount of federal funds which may or may not become available."
   Residents who have had their homes or properties damaged are asked to call the Elizabethton-Carter County EMA office at 542-1888 and submit their name, telephone number, street address and a short description of the damage at their location.