For all the damage caused by a storm that swept through a Loudon County town late Wednesday afternoon, Dennis Queen’s comments may best describe the community spirit shown when longtime friends showed up to clear trees that fell around — and on — people’s homes.
“Raymond Watkins and my neighbor Ronnie Roberts, we all played on the 1974 state championship football team at Loudon High School,” Queen said. “We’re all out here playing this game today, so we’re going to win this one also.”
Queen said he hadn’t seen Watkins in several years because they’re both busy with work. When the storm struck, Watkins dropped by to see if he could help, Queen said.
“He brought his tractor back and he has been helping the last two or three hours,” Queen said. “Once a friend, always a friend.”
Loudon County Emergency Management Director Daryl Smith said officials were still surveying the damage from the storm that leveled a barn, damaged several houses and pelted structures with hail.
“The good news is we have absolutely no injuries or fatalities reported,” Smith said. “We have not cleared every area affected but we have cleared many of them. We have numerous trees down and we are clearing them. There is storm damage to numerous homes, barns and property in Philadelphia.”
Officials were unsure if the town was hit by a tornado.
David Hotz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Morristown, said a representative from his office will go to Philadelphia on Thursday to survey the damage.
“When we look at it ... we’ll have a better idea of what happened,” he said.
Smith said downed trees and power lines on several streets and roads prevented children from getting home from school. The students were kept in the cafeteria at Philadelphia Elementary School until parents could pick them up.
Residents and officials said the storm went right through the middle of town and just missed the elementary school by a block.
“It came through Philadelphia through the center of town. There’s a lot of trees down, a few trees on houses, and a lot of wires down,” Loudon County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tony Aikens. “School was still in session and it missed the school by a block. We were lucky.”
Junior Coker said the storm struck his former car dealership and shattered windows in the garage. The wind was so strong, it blew the garage doors — that normally open out — into the garage.
“When it did that, it blew the windows out and blew me plumb against the wall,” he said.
Neighbors turned out to help 102-year-old John Everett, who became trapped in his Elm Street home after trees fell in front of all the doors. Everett, who was not injured, was trapped in his home for about an hour.
“I was not able to get out the door, so I couldn’t see all the damage that was done,” he said.
Pam Allison got her and daughter and infant granddaughter into an interior room of their house when they heard a weather alert. Then the storm swept through and hail pelted their house, but her granddaughter wasn’t phased.
“It was a terrible noise,” she said. “She didn’t cry, but her mamaw sure was scared to death.”
Loudon County Sheriff’s Office Assistant Chief Deputy Jimmy Davis said deputies got reports of a possible tornado.
“It came at the worst possible time when school was letting out and we had a lot of traffic with people picking up their children,” he said.
Davis said power would probably not be restored to downtown Philadelphia until Thursday.
Alderwoman Lynn Marlow said the strong winds toppled two of the four walls on the former McCrary Furniture Store, a brick structure that dated back to the 1800s and was situated next to the former city hall.
Ray Cox said the storm blew part of the roof off his barn on Church Street, where he lives in an apartment inside the structure.
“It opened up enough of the roof where it damaged my antiques,” he said. “It was definitely a rotating wind. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Things can be replaced, people can’t.”
Karmen Millsaps was teaching prekindergarten at the elementary school when the storm swept through town.
“I have a window in my classroom and we could see the wind change direction 180 degrees,” she said. “About that time is when we got the tornado warning on our cellphones, we got our kids moved to the sheltering spot.”
Millsaps said the students remained in their sheltering spot from 3 to about 3:40 p.m. Her students weren’t nervous.
“They’re young and didn’t know what was going on and they had just gotten up from a nap,” she said. “A lot of other teachers were trying to do game and sing songs to keep kids occupied and safe at the same time.”
Inclement weather was seen throughout the area Wednesday.
TVA spokesman Travis Brickey said lightning apparently struck an area near a liquid oxygen tank about a quarter mile from Douglas Dam in Sevier County. The tank exploded, igniting a fire in nearby woods.
The liquid oxygen is pumped in to aerate the water behind the dam, he said.
“The fire is basically burning itself out because it is burning up residual oxygen in the line,” he said.
Sevier County Volunteer Fire Department, Sevier County Sheriff’s Office, Tennessee Highway Patrol and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office responded to fight the fire and evacuated the area.