The storm of the century?

Recently, the Daily Times (our local paper) reported that the tornado which blew through southern Blount County and Great Smoky Mountains National Park was rated an EF-4. Last week, I finally got to observe some of the damage in person. From overlooks along the Foothills Parkway, a swath of downed trees nearly half a mile wide can be seen stretching more than 10 miles from Chilhowee Lake to Ace Gap. Most of the hiking trails in the area are closed, being completely impassable. Miraculously, no fatalities or injuries were reported, and no buildings were damaged.

Driving to the end of the parkway at Chilhowee Lake, one can see the damage up close. A broad swath of the hillside on the Monroe County side of the lake has been stripped bare, and a high voltage power line sits twisted and mangled in the water. I can only imagine the destructive force required to pull over the structure! From there, the tornado continued upstream along Abrams Creek, unimpeded by the low ridges and wooded hills that compose the western edge of the park.

The tornado finally broke apart when it hit the steep slopes of Mount Nebo above Walland, and that’s where I saw it face to face. The evening of the storms, I got off of work at 7 and was listening intently to radio reports as I drove home through Townsend. One storm cell had just blown from Loudon to Semour, and had blown right past our house. It brought some wind and quite a bit of rain, but caused no serious damage. A second cell (the tornado, although nobody knew so at the time) was heading toward Walland, and I was just a few miles away. As I approached the storm, I slowed down a bit, not wanting to wind up in the middle of the fray. Not only did the quickly moving storm concern me, but I’ve never seen so much lightning at one time. I’ve heard that tornadoes often cause clouds to become colored red, brown, or even green from dirt or leaves that get swept up into the storm, but this cloud only appeared dark grey. Very dark grey.

As I approached Walland, the storm grew closer, and darker. I didn’t know so at the time, but what I observed was the tornado breaking apart as it hit the side of Mount Nebo. Later, a patch of downed trees could be seen high above Foothills parkway where the storm hit the slopes with all it’s might. At the time, however, all I could see was the swirling, tiered layers of cloud, each moving in a different directions and each darker than the one above. I slowed the truck waiting for it to pass over the highway, knowing that I didn’t want to get any closer. The rain began pouring sideways in torrents as the power suddenly went out along the highway. Out of view just up the road, trees and power lines were being blown down as the remains of the tornado passed over the highway less than a mile ahead. Fortunately, however, the storm lost it’s force as it hit the mountain. Fierce wind and rain continued on toward Seymour, but the tornado itself never reformed.

I’ve never been so close to a tornado, and have rarely seen clouds so dark and sinister. I’m just thankful that the worst of the storm was confined to a wilderness area, or damage could have been much, much worse. It wasn’t the only storm to pass through our area, however; another damaging cell blew through Knoxville within the hour followed by one that dumped marble sized hail and six inches of rain on our house over a 40 minute period. Although our electricity was out until the next morning, we had no property damage. From the aftermath I’ve observed around south Knoxville and Louisville, we were very lucky.

The Smoky Mountains Association is hosting a very informative video of storm damage in the park. Many trails are still closed a month after the storm, but the most popular portion of Abrams Falls Trail from Cades Cove to the falls is now open again.

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