CARTER COUNTY, Tenn. - Although the deadly flash floods in Carter County were 15 years ago, for many residents it still seems like yesterday.
On the night of January 7, 1998, Anthony Roberts was working as an ambulance attendant in Carter County. That afternoon, a flash flood watch was issued at 3:31 p.m. according to the National Weather Service.
The flash flood warning was issued at 9:18 p.m. The waters started rising from 12:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. "As the night progressed, the rain got worse," Roberts told us. "The next thing you know, all of a sudden, the streams were swollen and people were asking to be rescued," Roberts said.
He and other first responders spent the night searching the steep terrain in the dark for survivors on Roan Mountain. Seven people died that night along the Upper Doe River. One of them was a first responder from Sullivan County. Two of the fatalities were Roberts' neighbors.
He too became a flood victim. "I lost my own home myself, so that was a very unique experience," Roberts said. "When I returned home the next day, the first thing that met me was the refrigerator at the front door. The floors were buckled. Water was about five feet up the walls. It was definitely a life-changing experience."
Carter County Emergency Management Director Andrew Worley called it a catastrophic melt-off: 20 inches of snow on Roan Mountain melted quickly as three to four inches of rain fell per hour. "People never think it's going to happen to them or be as bad, so you tend to let your guard down thinking you're safe in your home," Worley said.
Although residents had about three hours of warning time, many didn't think the situation was serious. "They never thought it would happen to them and it did. But I thought the same thing too. I was just as guilty as they were," Roberts said.
But that's not the case in the community anymore. Worley said residents now take the weather very serious. "Since then, whenever we get a major snow and then rain, my phone rings off the hook. People want to know what's going on," he said.
There are several crews in the county that keep an eye on snow measurements as well as water levels during the winter now.
That National Weather Service reports 200 mobile homes and 15 houses were completely demolished. Another 193 houses or structures and six businesses were damaged. There was an estimated total loss of $20 million.
To prevent another deadly disaster, the county bought the land along the river, hoping to save property and people. "We received several million dollars from FEMA through a hazard mitigation grant to purchase the houses that were effected and return them to habitats," Worley said. There can never be an insurable structure in those areas again.
It changed the landscape forever, but not the memory. "You drive by a spot where there used to be homes, and its not there anymore," Roberts said.
The Carter County Department of Emergency Management hopes to use the anniversary to raise awareness about flood dangers. They have more information and tips on their website at eccema.org.