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At Least 4 Die in Southern Floods

March 18, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Heavy rain flooded parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, making roads deadly, forcing scores of people to evacuate low-lying areas and unleashing mudslides onto homes.

Tennessee authorities blamed at least four deaths on the storm, which dumped nearly 4 inches on the state Sunday. Up to 4 1/2 inches fell in southwestern Virginia and Kentucky got 4 to 5 inches. More rain fell across the region Monday.

``It’s probably only going to get worse for some areas,″ said Sam Herron, a National Weather Service forecaster.

Record flooding along the Clinch River and the north fork of the Holston River in southwestern Virginia drove at least 15 people from their homes Monday in Saltville.

``It’s the worst I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here 20 years,″ said Saltville Police Chief Steve Surber.

The Clinch River had risen to a record 14.3 feet, said Mike Gillen of the weather service office in Blacksburg, Va. Flood stage is 10 feet and the record is 13.6.

High water blocked more than a dozen roads in eastern Tennessee’s Sevier County, heavily damaged at least one bridge and forced more than 100 people to evacuate.

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Sevier County, the historic valley settlement of Cades Cove was closed Monday, said Nancy Gray, a National Park Service spokeswoman.

``You can’t get into Cades Cove because of high water,″ she said.

Flash flooding destroyed or severely damaged at least 60 homes in rugged southeastern Kentucky’s Harlan and Knox counties, and seven other counties reported flooding, mud slides and power outages. Boats had to be used to evacuate some people. About 1,000 customers lost power late Sunday.

``We’re getting as many people and resources into it as we can to try to get it under control,″ Ray Bowman, spokesman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, said Monday.

A mudslide in Harlan County, Ky., pushed a mobile home over a 50-foot embankment early Monday and smashed it.

Jacqueline Bellofatto said she had to dig her 7-year-old daughter out of the mud beneath their home’s wreckage.

``I just dug her out with my hands. She was buried alive,″ Bellofatto said. ``I just started yelling for her and she wasn’t there.″

Once the daughter was safe, Bellofatto, her husband and their two children struggled to safety. ``We were finding out with each step that we took we would sink down to our chest in the mud,″ she said.

Near Nashville, the Duck River was expected to crest 5 feet above flood stage at Columbia, Tennessee officials said. The Harpeth River was expected to crest 3 to 4 feet above flood stage at Franklin and up to 7 feet above flood stage at Kingston Springs.

``The predicted crests wouldn’t cause severe flooding, but they are based on an inch more of rain. If more falls, that situation could change,″ state emergency services spokesman Kurt Pickering said Monday.

In western Tennessee, 3.59 inches of rain fell at Memphis International Airport by Sunday evening; the previous record for the date was 1.92 inches in 1987.

The deaths in Tennessee included a 17-year-old boy who drowned Sunday while trying to push a pickup truck out of high water in Lewisburg. Three people died when their pickup hydroplaned off a road and struck trees in Robertson County, officials said.

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On the Net:

National Weather Service: http://iwin.nws.noaa.gov

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