With rain still falling, TVA opens spill gates, schools plan closures

By Lance Coleman, Matt Lakin knoxnews.com

LENOIR CITY TVA engineers opened the spill gates at Fort Loudoun Dam today to relieve pressure generated by the week's record rainfall.

Water has flowed since 2 p.m. at a rate of about 344,000 gallons per second, said Tom Barnett, manager of TVA's river forecast center. Officials expect to keep that flow up through next week if the forecast for continued rain holds true.

"That's not unusual at all for this time of year," said Chuck Bach, TVA's general manager of river scheduling. "In the wintertime, we pull the water down to the lowest level. That gives us space to move water through the system."

Today's torrents closed schools and washed out roads, with more rain predicted to be on the way for tonight and Wednesday.

According to the area Red Cross, the group's disaster action team in Blount County will keep a shelter at Tuckaleechee United Methodist Church, 7322 Tuckaleechee Road near Townsend, open tonight for those who need to evacuate because of flooding. More shelters will be opened if needed, according to spokesman Stan Gibert. Blount County and Jefferson County schools will be closed Wednesday. Forecasts call for another 3-5 inches of rain across the Tennessee Valley.

Earlier today, heavy rainfall in Blount County created flooding that may match the devastation of 1994, an official said.

That deluge damaged bridges and submerged roads, according to Blount County Highway Superintendent Bill Dunlap.

Blount County has received up to 5 inches of rain in some areas, including 4.5 inches in Townsend where Little River is spilling over its banks.

Relentless rainfall across East Tennessee overnight swelled rivers, closed and delayed schools and roadways were submerged under ponds of water.

Residents along Little River were advised overnight to voluntarily evacuate.

"We've had a few people float in and out," Terressa Holland with the Red Cross said this morning of visits to the church shelter.

She estimated the church could accommodate up to 50-60 evacuees.

Blount County officials advise against motorists driving around barricades on flooded roads.

Someone did just that on Monday night on River Ford Road behind Heritage High School, Dunlap said.

"They moved some barricades and the Blount County Fire Department had to do a swift water rescue," he said. "Please don't go around the barricades."

Dunlap said flooding has been reported on Carnes Road in Townsend, on River Ford Road and on John Helton Road.

"John Helton Road, Short Creek comes up real quick and John Helton Road is cut off," he said.

Dunlap said flooding was also seen on Blockhouse View Road near the Chilhowee Community Center where water got over a bridge there and on Porter Bridge in the Lanier Community off of US 129.

Dunlap said he was glad Blount County Schools Director Rob Britt canceled classes for the day.

"About eight years ago we had a school bus stranded around Porter Bridge," he said.

"You've got to err on the side of caution when the water comes up," he said. "You've got to take caution because you've got a lot of streams to cross getting kids to and from school."

The Pigeon River in Newport is nearing the "major flooding" stage, according to the National Weather Service. Cocke County authorities said they're holding their breath so far with the river at a height of about 11.3 feet this afternoon.

"We've had to barricade a few roads, but right now we're just watching and waiting," said Patrick Sheldon, Cocke County Emergency Management Agency director. "If it gets close to 14 feet, that's when evacuations will take place."

Roane County's Emory River was in good shape this morning and was 9 feet below flood stage, said Howie Rose, the county's director of emergency services.

In Anderson County, a Sheriff's Department dispatcher said the only flood-related call that was received this morning came from the county's Highway Department to report that Irwin Mill Road was closed at the low-water bridge over Hinds Creek.

School systems closed due to the heavy rainfall today included Blount, Greene, McMinn, Monroe and Sevier counties. Sweetwater city schools also were closed.

Systems that delayed classes two hours include Cumberland, Hawkins and Union counties.