Written by: Johnny Walker & Kevin Gilliam of TAUD
At approximately 1:52 a.m. on March 3, 2020, a deadly EF-4 tornado touched down and ravaged several neighborhoods in Putnam County, Tennessee, particularly in the Double Springs Utility District service area. The tornado took several lives in this community and completely devastated a number of neighborhoods to rubble. After the tornado passed, residents were out checking on their neighbors, assessing if medical help was needed and attempting to account for every person in the area.
Double Springs Utility personnel, Steve Redman, Caleb Mackie, Carl Knight, Robin Johnson, Jenifer Moore and Angie Byers, were out in the immediate aftermath making sure that the threat from their water utility, as well as other utilities, would not cause further harm to the citizens. Making sure to get electrical power and gas systems turned off in these areas was top priority.
The DSUD crew continued to work through the night into the morning hours of March 4, cutting off water services and looking for water main breaks. When TAUD’s Middle Tennesse Circuit Rider Johnny Walker and Training Specialist Kevin Gilliam arrived at Double Springs that morning, they learned that the crew had made quite a bit of headway and already had a plan in action to stop the loss of water. As soon as the tornado left the area, the primary master meter feeding that section of the service area was dumping over 1,200 gallons of water per minute into their system and they reduced this to just over 700 gallons per minute.
Utility personnel worked tirelessly throughout the day, cutting off valves at homes that had been destroyed, as well as branch lines. Johnny and Kevin spent the day with working with DSUD employees Caleb Mackie and Steve Redman; offering ideas and advice, but primarily verifying and assisting to implement the plan DSUD had already laid out.
By that afternoon, the problem was isolated to an area along Highway 70 that had been hit especially hard. At that point the crew was able to reduce the leak to around 600 gallons per minute, leaving only a minimal number of customers without water. The Cookeville Water Department sent personnel to assist in audibly searching for leaks, but excessive traffic noise hampered their efforts. It was decided to try again early the next morning when traffic would be lighter, giving Cookeville’s leak detection crew the best chance of hearing the leak. Their assistance was amazing to experience and they were able to effectively isolate the leak to approximately one half-mile stretch of Highway 70.
In the pre-dawn hours, the team investigated an area of suspect where two large trees had been uprooted, however; the listening device did not pick up any sounds that could be discerned as a leak. Efforts were then focused on the creek that flowed under Highway 70 and beside the Echo Valley Pool.
With everyone involved beginning to think the leak could be in the creek, isolation valves were installed on both sides of the creek. The 6-inch main was an AC line installed in 1962. Cookeville’s crew worked expertly to excavate the main and install the valves. Since water was fed by the parent system from east and west, if the leak was in the creek, it could effectively be valved off and service quickly restored. Once the valves were installed, a trip to the master meter revealed the system was still losing approximately 600 GPM.
The team pressed on and revisited the uprooted trees they had inspected earlier that morning. By climbing out onto the two fallen trees and looking through a small gap between them, water could be seen flowing into a broken down culvert going under the highway. A grab sample and a chlorine powder pillow showed the pink color all were hoping to see. The leak had been found! Working skillfully, the crew removed the debris, uncovered the line, and spliced in a section of PVC. Another trip to the master meter indicated normal flow. After many, many hours of effort, the situation was finally resolved! Once the leak was repaired, dead end lines were flushed, pressure was restored system-wide, and customers were visibly grateful to the Double Springs Utility District crew for their tireless efforts.
The following day, Kevin returned to the area to check on other water systems supplied by Cookeville Water Department. He assessed that the systems were doing well with minimal to no damage.
Double Springs Utility District employees had been on the ground for many hours without sleep, and were all mentally and physically exhausted. Nevertheless, they worked relentlessly to slow the leaks and swiftly restore service to their customers.
“Our hats are off to all of you for your perseverance through such a very difficult time in your community,” said the TAUD staff.
Now that some time has passed since this tragic event, we can reflect and see what we already knew; there are many wonderful people in the state of Tennessee and beyond. There were hundreds of volunteers on the ground throughout the early stages of this disaster. While onsite assisting Double Springs, Johnny received several calls from water systems, some as far as 100 miles away, offering to send crews to help in any way that they could. It was so encouraging to see and is another excellent example of our systems helping each other in times of need.
TAUD would like to recognize the many utility personnel that stood ready to assist. There were numerous calls from neighboring water systems, as well as systems from several counties away that were just waiting for the call to action from the Double Springs crew. They would have come without hesitation to the aid of their utility family. We are all so blessed to have such a wonderful extended family in this utility industry- and Tennessee’s sure is one of the best!