A Year of Hardships, a Year of Triumphs

by Holly Hollman

Athens was tested in 2011, a year of hardships and a year of triumphs for the city.

The year included eight note-worthy weather events and four apartment fires (one rekindled), as well as a major industrial announcement and two major industrial expansions.

Between January and August, the city’s leaders, its employees, its citizens were called upon time and again to meet challenges, and in the end, the city proved it is a place where neighbor helps neighbor and people prevail amid adversity.

“Our community got rocked,” Mayor Ronnie Marks said. “But the City Council, administration and employees saw us through a phenomenal year despite of a lot of natural disasters.”

Following a white Christmas, Athens began the new year with fire and snow. A grease fire at Athens Village Apartments displaced three families, rekindled and displaced six more. Soon after, Mother Nature dumped 6 to 10 inches on the city and county, leading to school closings and treacherous roads.

A smaller snow followed in February and the first of many storms hit at month’s end, knocking down trees and power lines.

As March was underway, a fire at Sandpiper Apartments displaced 32 people, and a fire at Camelot Apartments displaced two families. Just as residents did with the earlier apartment fire, people stepped in and made donations to help those who lost their homes and possessions.

But it was a storm event in April that gave Athens and Limestone County the ultimate test. On the 27th, seven twisters hit the county, including an EF5. Four people were killed, and more than 700 structures were damaged or destroyed.  Athens Utilities had 31,000 of its customers without power, and TVA’s main transmission lines were left in piles of twisted metal.

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The community rallied to provide disaster relief. Places of worship became places for victims to sleep or donation centers. Firefighters and law enforcement became delivery men carrying food and supplies. Teachers and students became chief executive officers of donation programs. City workers became grillers and fed responders and citizens. Utility crews became around-the-clock repairmen and began rebuilding the power system.

Citizens became disaster relief workers. According to United Way of Athens-Limestone County, at the Disaster Recovery Warehouse in Athens alone, people volunteered to work more than 13,000 hours.

As the area was overcoming this adversity, a small tornado and straight-line winds struck a day shy of the month anniversary of the tornado outbreak, putting 8,000 utility customers in the dark.

Mother Nature was not done battering the city. In June, storms caused scattered power outages and winds attacked Old Glory, tearing about 100 American flags from poles on U.S. 31 and Hobbs Street. In July, an electrical storm knocked out power to 3,600 utility customers, and Fire and Rescue answered 18 lightning-related calls as several homes suffered electrical and roof damage.

August provided no relief. An electrical storm hit the first of the month. Athens Fire and Rescue Chief Danny Southard said that in an hour’s time, lightning struck 6,400 times in a five-mile radius of Athens Church of God, and one strike sparked a fire at the church, burning it down. As firefighters battled the blaze and police blocked the streets, they had to periodically seek shelter in their vehicles because of continuous cloud-to-ground strikes. Winds damaged the roof at U.G. White’s Hardware, and the roof at LuVici’s, forcing the restaurant to shut down for repairs. Athens Utilities had to work to return electricity to 26,000 customers.

“I looked over the list (of storms) and I see why I feel older now,” Police Capt. Floyd Johnson said. “I didn't realize was how many storms we have had. The most important part was how the community responded. That was really a blessing for everyone. The ones who needed help received it, and the ones who got to help others also got a blessing.”

Storms and fires were not the only tragedies. In 2011, the community lost citizens who contributed much because of their love for Athens and Limestone County. Among those losses were Boss Hill of Elkmont, who traditionally fed a front yard full each May with his goat stew; former Sheriff Buddy Evans of Athens, who was known to don women’s garb to catch bootleggers; and Harvey Craig, who was the first black principal in Limestone County after integration and who served on the Athens-Limestone Public Library’s Board of Trustees at the time of his death.

Despite these trials, Athens made strides in 2011.

In February, the city entered into an agreement with the county to run a fiber optic cable loop to connect all city and county buildings within the city limits. That includes E-911 and EMA. Provisions were made for future expansion to include the Athens-Limestone Public Library, Athens Senior Center and Athens Middle and Athens High schools.

Information Technology Director Dale Haymon said the loop will enable the city and county to split the cost of having a private high speed data network that promotes ease in sharing data between city and county departments. Haymon said the network also will provide redundant connectivity in the event of another disaster or system failure.

Another technological step the city made was in April when the council approved purchasing a new high speed data network and phone system, which runs on the fiber optic cable. This system offers security, emergency alerts, video conferencing, the ability to access documents and data remotely, guest usage of wireless access without compromising sensitive data and having a disaster recovery location where critical data owned by the city and utilities is stored.

“Because of the ability to consolidate phone lines, reduce or eliminate support contracts, eliminate internet connections and eliminate leased connectivity between buildings, the system will save the City of Athens approximately $55,000 per year,” Haymon said. “As a direct result of this and the fiber optic projects, Athens can communicate faster and more effectively with its citizen and with other government entities.”

Although the economy continues to struggle, Athens received welcoming news on the industrial front. In March, the council approved tax abatements for Turner Medical, which is doing a $2.95-million expansion and adding 40 more jobs. The company, which supplies medical parts, had already expanded by 25 jobs prior to the abatement request.

The Electric and Gas departments helped secure a new industry. In October, Carpenter Technology, a steel company headquartered in Pennsylvania, announced a $500 million investment in southern Limestone County, which will mean 241 jobs initially. The Electric Department will build a new substation to provide power to the plant, and the Gas Department will improve lines to provide gas.

In November, another company sought tax abatements for an expansion. Steelcase moved a Canadian line to Athens, which is a $2-million investment that is adding 50 jobs and creating $1.75 million in payroll initially. The Athens plant is now the largest Steelcase facility in North America.

Funding for a major road project also came through this year. City, county and state leaders secured a $1.1 million industrial access grant to improve Nuclear Plant Road, a main evacuation route from Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.

Funding for a new Athens-Limestone Public Library also is making headway. The project received a $1-million challenge grant from the Dekko Foundation and had to raise $250,000 of its match this year. That was accomplished, and a joint committee that includes city and county members is finalizing a contract with an architect. Interior work to turn the former Kroger building into a library should start in the spring.

Moving day came in October for City Hall workers who packed up and settled in a temporary home on the second floor of Athens Utilities in the Elm Industrial Park. This is part of the plan to demolish and rebuild a new City Hall in downtown Athens.

The city’s education system also had a good year. The entire Athens City School System continued its trend of making adequate yearly progress on state tests, which is required by the federal No Child Left Behind.

“Two things strike me about 2011,” Marks said. “Public safety was maintained despite disasters, and we were able to boost the local economy with industrial expansions and a new industry.”

What next year will bring to Athens is unknown. What is known is that this community and its leaders will join together to prepare for a better future and work together to overcome any hardships.  Tornado victims have rebuilt or are rebuilding. The city has taken steps to improve communications. LuVici’s has reopened, and the construction of Athens Church of God is in progress.  

“I can’t help but think about the morning the church burned and seeing a cross still standing,” Johnson said.

Just as the city stands ready for 2012.

2011 Timeline for Athens

Jan. 6 - A grease fire at Athens Village Apartments displaces three families.

Jan. 7 – The fire rekindles at Athens Village Apartments and six more families are displaced.

Jan. 10 – Following a white Christmas, areas of Athens and Limestone County get 6 to 10 inches of snow.

Feb. 3 – The area gets 1 to 2 inches of snow.

Feb. 17 – City enters into an agreement with the county to run fiber optic cable to improve data sharing between the entities, improve communications speed and have another method of communication during a disaster.

Feb. 28 – Straight line winds cause damage, mostly in western Limestone but also knock down trees and lines in Athens.

March 8 – A fire at Sandpiper Apartments displaces 32 people.

March 17 – A fire at Camelot Apartments displaces two families.

March 29 – Council approves abatements for Turner Medical’s $2.95 million expansion, which added 25 jobs and plans to add 40 more.

April 27 ­– Seven twisters hit the county, including and EF5. Four people are killed. More than 700 homes, churches and businesses are damaged or destroyed. There are 44,800 electric customers and at one time, 31,000 are without power.  TVA has to rebuild its main transmission lines to Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant. Debris removal costs for the entire county top more than $4 million.

May 26 – Small tornado and straight line winds knock out power for 8,000 in Limestone County, one day shy of the one-month anniversary of the tornado outbreak.

June 15 – Storms cause scattered power outages when high winds knock down trees and lines. The winds also tear about 100 American flags from poles on U.S. 31 and Hobbs Street.

July 10 – An electrical storm knocks out power to 3,600 customers and Fire and Rescue receives 18 lightning-related calls. Several homes suffer electrical and roof damage.

Aug. 1 – The entire Athens City School System makes AYP (adequate yearly progress) on state tests.

Aug. 4 – Electrical storm hits Athens. In an hour’s time, lightning strikes 6,400 times around the Athens Church of God which burns down. Those strikes occur in a 5-mile radius of the church. Winds damage the roof at U.G. White’s Hardware, and the roof at LuVici’s, forcing the restaurant to shut down for repairs. 26,000 customers are without electricity.

Aug. 22 – City approves an agreement with the state to do improvements to Nuclear Plant Road, a main evacuation route from Browns Ferry. An industrial access grant is funding $1.1 million. The city and county are each contributing $250,000.

Oct. 17 – City Hall offices move to Athens Utilities on the second floor in preparation of tearing down the old facility and building a new one. Included at the new offices is a new high speed data network and phone system.  This phone/data network uses the fiber optic cable to provide connectivity.

Oct. 21 – Carpenter Technology, a steel company headquartered in Pennsylvania, announces a $500 million investment in southern Limestone County, which will mean 241 jobs initially. Athens Utilities helps secure the company’s location here and will supply gas and electricity. The Electric Department will build a new substation to provide power to the plant.

Nov. 14 – Council approves abatements for Steelcase’s $2 million investment, which will add 50 jobs and create $1.75 million in payroll initially. The company moved a line from Canada to Athens, making this facility the largest Steelcase plant in North America.

December – Library officials announce that they have raised the $250,000 needed as the first installment of a $1 million match to get a $1-million grant from the Dekko Foundation for the new Athens-Limestone Public Library project. The library gets $250,000 of the grant this year for raising the match.