East Tennessee History: The Flood of 1998 Part 2
Published 11:00 am Monday, January 25, 2021
The night of January 8, 1998, was a nightmare for hundreds of residences of Roan Mountain, Hampton, Elizabethton and the surrounding communities. Before the night was over, dozens of people in these communities would lose their homes and seven would lose their lives.
It began late in the evening of January 7, 1998. A wall of water came off the 6,000-foot Roan Mountain. The water had been caused by 60 inches of snow melt on the mountain and by a warm rain that had drenched the community during the previous day.
Many residents in Roan Mountain stayed in their homes and braved out the water. One elderly couple decided to leave and drove into the flood water. They would be swept away by the wall of water.
Other residents fought for their lives in their own homes. One 16-year-old girl, whose parents were not home, watched in horror as the water came into her home and began rising along the walls of the house. She would later say that she climbed on top of a cabinet and prayed. “I knew this was it, so I made peace with God and prepared to die.”
Suddenly she heard a noise, and a member of Roan Mountain’s Volunteer Fire Department called out. He tied a rope to her and led her through the flood waters to safety. This was only one story of heroism during a night filled with heroes.
Volunteers began looking for people in trouble in the Roan Mountain Village. Some of these volunteers drove in water three feet deep and risked their own lives trying to save others. Without their heroism the night would have been even more deadly.
As the water crashed into the houses and mobile homes in the heart of Roan Mountain, others were struggling to save their neighbors. One girl went to a neighboring house and carried two children out of the house and the water. She waded through water over her waist until she found dry ground in the Roan Mountain Post Office parking lot.
Before the night was over, the house the children had just left was picked up and slammed into an electric pole and water would be up to the post office parking lot, a depth of around five to six feet.
The flood had just started. It moved like a freight train through the town, picking up mobile homes and washing them on down the river. A bridge that crossed the Doe River at Crabtree Road was destroyed by debris that had become blocked on the upper side of the bridge.
The river backed up at the bridge and washed across Highway 19. The flood washed into a local church up to the church seats and formed almost a lake on that end of the community.
It was obvious what was going to happen after this. The water would wash down the river, through Doe River Gorge into Hampton, Tenn. Dozens would die if they did not evacuate out of low-lying areas of Hampton.
The sheriff at the time, Sheriff John Henson, took it upon himself to call ahead to his deputies to evacuate the low areas of Hampton. This call made a difference in hundreds of lives because these residents were given time to get out to higher ground.
Unfortunately, the flood was not finished and the night was not over. Before it was finished, the water would take the lives of five more people and change the landscape of this area of Carter County forever.
The story of the Flood of ’98 will be concluded next week in this column.