Knoxville Weather Attack!

Assessing the damage—and the economic boom—from our months of scary-bad storms

When a cloudburst swamped Knoxville on the last day of February this year, flooding intersections and storefronts and basements, it seemed March was just making an overly dramatic entrance: In like a lion on steroids. What no Knoxvillian could have guessed then was that this storm was just the opening salvo, the first assault in what would eventually come to seem like a season-long siege of the city. Still to come was the hail, the tornadoes, the biggest power outage in local history—and, again and again, the trees tumbling, onto roofs, cars, roadways, transformers.

The first half of 2011 has not, in fact, been terribly notable on paper, from a meteorological standpoint. It has been a little wetter than usual, according to the National Weather Service, but as of July 3 the 27.6 inches we've received this year is just 0.7 inches above normal—a deviation of less than 3 percent. The only date that really leaps out is April 27, the peak of what is being called "the 2011 Super Outbreak," when our region registered a record number of tornadoes. (Locally, we are more likely to remember it as the Night of the Hailstones.)

"Everything else that has happened this spring is typical for our area," Sam Roberts, a hydrometeorological technician with the National Weather Service in Morristown, writes in an e-mail. "Because of the April outbreak, I believe people's awareness has dramatically increased."

Well, maybe it looks that way on the weather maps. But on the ground in Knoxville and Knox County, it was starting to feel like a war zone by the end of June. Leaves, branches, and in some cases whole trees still littered the ground in neighborhoods north, south, east, and west. Roofs everywhere sported blue and black tarps indicating as-yet-unrepaired damage from one tempest or another. Cars, trucks, vans, and buses were still riddled with the telltale dimples of hail attack. And less tangibly but just as surely, a certain jumpiness had set in about the weather. TV and radio warnings of severe thunderstorms were suddenly attended to with a concern unusual in a region long accustomed to seasonal bursts. The appearance of black clouds in the sky was greeted with a new and uncomfortable level of foreboding.

It became commonplace to litter conversation with declarations like, "I've lived here all my life, and I've never seen..." Or, "My mother's lived here all her life," or "My grandfather's lived here all his life..." Anecdotally, it was all but impossible to find anyone who didn't have a close friend, neighbor, or relative who had suffered some kind of ill effects from the weather: parents with young children who went days without power, or friends who had just finished up hail repair on the house when the next storm brought a big limb crashing onto the roof, or people across the street who had a tree that withstood the first several rounds of strong wind only to finally give in and topple over onto the family sedan.

Social media networks were flooded with requests for help with tree removal; recommendations for roofers; jokes about Thor, the God of Thunder who reigned at the late-spring box office; speculations about climate change; and a general tone of sardonic exasperation. As one poster on a Knoxville message board put it, "remember when it would just rain and get, like, wet? those were good times."

What it all adds up to is hard to say, scientifically, spiritually, or even financially. But we went out and talked to people from assorted areas of expertise that were directly affected by the storms to try to provide some perspective.

Jason Meredith, Knoxville Utilities Board: "It's still early on as far as cost assessment goes, but right now we're expecting this most recent storm to cost more than $4 million. It was the largest outage in KUB history, something totally unprecedented in the last hundred years. The earlier storm this year, in April, cost more than $2 million. With both storms back to back, we're still assessing cost and probably will be for weeks. FEMA, after assessing the damage from the April storm, has agreed to compensate up to 75 percent of the cost of that storm, and we're hoping for a similar outcome with this most recent event. KUB usually sets aside around $2 million a year for storm related costs, so that amount was depleted by the April storm alone. This new storm has just blown costs out of the water.

"A typical storm that KUB deals with may affect 20,000 customers. Even the blizzard of 1993 affected only around 40,000 customers. At its height, this storm affected 127,000 customers, and even today [June 29] more than 50,000 customers remain without power. Immediately after the storm, KUB had 95 to 100 crews deployed, the largest number ever. As of yesterday [June 28], 120 utility poles, 111 transformers, and miles of wire have been replaced. We have utility companies and crews working on the damage from as far away as Kentucky, Virginia, and Indiana. Right now we're estimating that over 90,000 overtime hours have been spent assessing and repairing the damage. The City of Knoxville and Knox County have been a great help since and during the storm, along with the Knoxville Police Department. I'm not sure if it is the number one event, but this storm has definitely been one of the major collaborative efforts between the city and county."

Jim York, Director of Finance for the City of Knoxville: "The cost we're estimating for the City of Knoxville as a result of the most recent storm is somewhere around $200,000. This is mainly for debris clean-up and removal, as well as damage to a few small buildings and vehicles. The amount has definitely exceeded the amount the city anticipates annually for storm costs. The damage caused by this storm was more widespread than that caused by the previous storm in April. Our usual schedule has been postponed for the next two weeks to give individuals time to clean up their property and have the debris picked up and disposed of." [York adds that the April storm caused some $600,000 in damage to city-owned vehicles.]

Mansour Hasan, State Farm Insurance: "Being in insurance, the storms have had a direct effect on the amount of business I'm doing. As a small business owner, the sheer volume of claims I'm filing make it so that I only have time to take care of my current customers, without any time to bring in new business. That's okay, because my job is to take care of my clients when they have the most need. The delay in bringing in new business doesn't affect me individually as much as it affects State Farm.

"I've been in the insurance business for six years, and my father-in-law has been in the business 32 years, and neither of us has ever seen a storm system like this or a spring and summer as busy as this one. It's the worst damage we've ever had to deal with. Most of the claims we're dealing with are from residential customers and homeowners, and we're expecting to be dealing with the effects of these storms for the next six years. The next six to seven months will be busy because of damage that is being reported now, but it's likely that clients will continue to find previously unnoticed damage for the next few years. As an insurance agent, I do have some concern about the quality of the contractors that my clients are finding. I try to advise clients to be diligent in their research about contractors and to verify that the contractors themselves have insurance and licenses and to also check the contractors' references."

Vince Fortner, Owner of Corner Stone Roofing Services, LLC, past president and current board member of the Tennessee Association of Roofing Contractors: "Our business has been overwhelmed with the amount of damage caused by these storms. Most people were totally unprepared for the kind of expensive damage their homes and businesses suffered. The damage is far and above anything that anyone in this area has ever dealt with. It was a storm of epic proportions. There's no way contractors in Knoxville could have been prepared for the needed repairs, so the influx of out-of-town contractors—the quality ones—is welcomed. The damage is spread from Lenoir City to Maryville to South Knoxville. Even with all of the out-of-town contractors who've come to Knoxville, there's probably going to be a two-year time frame before all of the work is complete."

Ken Ledford, Home Inspector for Inspector Cluseau's Residential/Commercial Home Inspection Service, Inc.: "Yes, there has definitely been an increase in business because of the recent bad weather. We've been doing this for longer than anyone in the state, and we serve places within a 150-mile radius of Knoxville, so we have a market for it. Instead of home inspections people are calling us to come out and document hail and wind damage to make sure we document the same damage as the insurance adjustors. That's a direct effect of the storms. The business that we're getting, although it's not all home inspections, has brought us back to the level we were at before the economic downturn."

Michael Rudder, Beaty Chevrolet: "The hail damage was actually a blessing to us. People took advantage of the reduced prices on damaged cars, and once undamaged cars were on the lot they also sold because people needed replacements for their vehicles that were severely damaged. This positive effect on sales wasn't much of a surprise. We've seen similar things happen after hailstorms in the past."

John Sharbach, Owner of Autoglass of America: "The damage from the hailstorms is still increasing our business now, and we anticipate that we'll be dealing with damage directly related to those storms for the next nine to 10 months."

Mike Reeves, President of Dent Station Plus: "We're a small business, and the amount of business we've gotten as a result of the hail damage is the most we've ever had."

Clerk, Avis Car Rentals: "We lost a of cars, just like everyone else, but the storms actually caused a tremendous increase in our revenue, because when everyone had a vehicle in the body shop they needed to rent a car."

Keith Pankey, Sign Co.: "Saying we've been overwhelmed with business is a minor understatement. The first storm, with hail as large as golf balls, busted all the glass in the neon signs across town. All that glass has to be replaced, and we've been slammed with requests. As soon as businesses receive their insurance checks, they expect repairs to be complete within a week, and that's just impossible. We've got more work than we can possibly handle. It's caused us to hire five new people in the last month and a half. We'll busy with hail damage repair for at least another six months. The business picking up is a blessing, but for now it's more work than we can handle."

Judi Starliper, Realtor: "The weather has mainly affected closings, because repairs must be done before the closing. Especially after the house has been vacated by the sellers, we have to scramble to find someone to do a reputable job on the repairs, which is harder because of all the yahoos who have come in from out of town without a license. Insurance is more reluctant to pay if they're not sure a good job is being done either. The rising cost is mainly in roofing and roofing supplies, which are getting higher almost weekly."

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