The aftermath of a huge winter storm that passed through Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia left hardware stores short of heaters and resulted in nearly record-breaking service calls from first responders.
Barry Brickey, spokesman for the Kingsport Fire Department, said the agency received more than 50 weather-related calls from Friday, when temperatures started dropping, until Monday afternoon.
This was beyond the normal amount of calls the fire department receives over a winter weekend, he said.
“This was significantly larger,” Brickey said.
The last time the fire department saw the same number of calls was during the winter of 2013-14.
The bout of cold last weekend came from a winter storm that swept across the eastern United States. The Associated Press has reported more than 30 deaths from the winter storm in western New York.
The storm even affected Florida, where temperatures dropped into the 20s.
Within the Tri-Cities region, the temperatures dropped into the single digits with high winds on Friday and Saturday, causing the wind chill to reach negative numbers.
The Tennessee Valley Authority reported record-breaking power usage for one day on Friday and for the weekend.
Mark Nagi, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said Tuesday all interstates were clear, but he warned of ice on some secondary roads and state highways after snow dusted the Tri-Cities on Monday and left considerably more snow in areas south of Sullivan County.
Brickey said the KFD responded to seven fire calls over a six-day period, two of them involving commercial buildings.
There was also a significant number of calls to fire alarms, pipes breaking and sprinkler systems malfunctioning.
George Washington School Apartments on East Sevier Avenue had a water line break resulting in flooding.
The Blake at Kingsport, a senior citizen living facility, also saw a water line break.
“They had a pretty bad one,” Brickey said.
Hardware stores reported heaters and plumbing items flying off shelves. Colonial Heights Hardware had only two small heaters left on Tuesday morning. Several plumbing items were sold out.
The storm affected surrounding areas more than the Tri-Cities.
George Porter, spokesman for Appalachian Power, said at the peak of the storm the energy provider lost power for 50,000 customers in its three-state region of Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
“Impacts were minimal in Kingsport and Southwest Virginia, with Buchanan County being the hardest hit area with about 700 customers out,” Porter said. “We were able to restore most Tennessee and Southwest Virginia customers by Saturday evening.”
TVA providers in the region instituted rolling blackouts to keep the electrical grid from buckling. Brightridge, serving Johnson City, Washington County and southern Kingsport and Sullivan County; Holston Electric Cooperative, serving much of Hawkins County; and Bristol Tennessee Essential Services had the blackouts.
Most of Kingsport, including the part in western Hawkins County, is served by Appalachian Power.
Tri-Cities Airport officials also said they saw minimal impact.
“We were very minimally affected,” Trevor Rice, spokesman for the airport, said.
Rice said the winter operations ground crew applied a de-icer early in the week and maintained the airfield throughout the weekend as temperatures dropped.
He said the runway and terminal stayed open with minimal delays.
“We were fully operable throughout the weekend,” Rice said.
Sullivan County Emergency Medical Service Chief Jim Perry said the agency received mostly normal calls throughout the weekend.
“The biggest thing we encountered was a significant increase in fire responses, both inside the city and out in the county,” he said.
Plumbers in demand
Madi Lovelace, office manager for Steve Huff Plumbing, said more than 300 phone calls came in to the business over the long holiday weekend.
“They (calls) started coming in Friday,” Lovelace said of calls about frozen and/or burst pipes. “We kind of knew it was going to happen.”
She suggested leaving a trickle of water running through faucets and keeping the heat inside at least 65 degrees and opening cabinet doors under sinks to avoid future frozen pipes.
Lovelace said the business answered 24 calls Friday and although technically closed Saturday ran five emergency calls. It ran none Sunday or Monday, but she said plumbers were out in force Tuesday.
“We got hundreds of calls Sunday,” Lovelace said.
Lovelace said that “unfortunately there’s not anything a plumber can do if it’s frozen.”
“Sometimes you don’t know until it’s too late if it burst,” she said of pipes spewing water.
Some plumbers and HVAC businesses could not be reached for comment Tuesday because phone voice mail was full or nobody answered the phone.
Heating technicians in demand
Lafayette Air Conditioning in Kingsport received “a couple hundred” calls over the weekend, owner Kyle Rodrigues said.
He said one technician was on call and worked from noon Friday, when the business officially closed, over the weekend. “He was unable to get to everybody,” Rodrigues said. “The most common thing we saw was the drain lines freezing up.”
The condensation lines in the summer carry water from the moisture generated by air conditioning outside, but Rodrigues said in winter condensation occurs and has to be drained through the same lines.
Otherwise, he said the backed up lines cause an automatic shutoff of the system. When it is colder than 20 degrees, he said most heat pump heating systems run on auxiliary heat coils but usually can get the temperature up to only 68 degrees or so inside.
“By midweek people will start seeing the condensation lines thaw out,” Rodrigues said.
School system issues
Sullivan County Schools had water freezing issues with a sink at Mary Hughes Elementary School in Piney Flats, maintenance supervisor Charlie Hubbard said, while Tennessee High in Bristol also had a minor water freezing issue.
Hubbard said the county school system did not “roll back” the heat like it normally would when school is not in session for an extended time. He said that helped keep the pipes from freezing. However, he said as things continue to thaw it is possible water pipes that froze could start leaking as they thaw.
Kingsport City Schools had an issue with a fire sprinkler malfunctioning in the single-digit temperatures in part of the former Sullivan North High School, Assistant Superintendent of Administration Andy True said.
“We’re bringing in some restoration specialists to address that,” True said.
Much of the building has no heat or air conditioning since the tower for that system was moved to Robinson Middle School before school started in August. Plans are to use a different type of system at the former North when and if it is converted to the new Sevier Middle or other use.
However, the former North gym at the center of the Tribe Athletic Complex (TAC) being used for basketball and other Dobyns-Bennett sports was not affected, True said.
The TAC is being used until the Buck Van Huss Dome is reinforced and renovated by the fall of 2025. The Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) also is leasing space in the building with separate heat; True said that area may have had some water issues.
Wise County Emergency Coordinator Jessica Swiney said the temperatures caused a few minor water line breaks across the county as well as a few short-term power outages.
“Some areas saw 300 to 500 customers out at a time, but power was restored quickly,” Swiney said.
Plumbers and heating contractors may have seen more of the impact from sub-zero temperatures.
“It was awful,” said Wise-based Ridgeview Heating and Cooling owner Josh Wilson. “On Christmas Eve, we had 119 calls on our answering machine. I worked 16 hours that day and another five on Christmas Day. It was unreal because normally we’re dead on Christmas.”
Wilson said many of the calls stemmed from problems that often would not have been noticeable in warmer conditions. With temperatures dropping below zero, those problems turned into heat pump or furnace failures.
“Be proactive and get preventative maintenance so you’ll be prepared for bad conditions,” Wilson said. “Some kind of backup heat would not have been a bad thing too.”
O’Brien Craft, co-owner of Home Hardware in Norton, said his store is experiencing what a lot of hardware stores and departments have seen since Monday with customers trying to repair plumbing after the weekend freeze.
“We’re selling a lot of pipe, fittings and a lot of heat tapes,” said Craft, “and I say we’ll be pretty busy for the next few days.”
Kentucky Utilities/Old Dominion Power spokesperson Natasha Collins said the utility did not have power demand figures for Wise and Lee counties, two of the five Virginia localities served by ODP. Across KU’s service region, Collins said Christmas Eve’s total customer usage was 91,938 megawatt-hours and Christmas Day’s usage was 78,504 MWhs.
The KU usage for the same two days in 2021 was 44,933 and 37,640 MWhs for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Collins said.
Hawkins Electric Cooperative General Manager Jimmy Sandlin said the company does not currently have any significant number of outages.
On Friday and Saturday the company went through an unprecedented situation where the Tennessee Valley Authority instituted rolling outages.
Regular power was able to resume on Sunday.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol also conducted an inventory of county roadways Tuesday and reported the following:
- Carter County: Most roads are clear, but Roane Mountain is dangerous.
- Cocke County: Some roads are hazardous.
- Grainger County: Main roads are clear, but the back roads are still snow covered.
- Greene County: Snow covered.
- Hamblen County: Snow covered.
- Hawkins County: Most are clear, but some of the backroads are slick.
- Jefferson County: Hazardous.
- Sullivan County: Secondary roads are ice covered.
- Unicoi County: Clear.
- Washington County: Main roads are clear, but the backroads are snow covered.
Staff Writers Cliff Hightower, Rick Wagner, Mike Still and Tessa Worley contributed to this story.