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Lees-McRae residence hall evacuated, reason unkown

BANNER ELK — No natural gas leaks were found in Avery Residence Hall, according to Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, following an evacuation of the building on Aug. 30 that led to approximately 70 brief hospital stays.

“During the initial evacuation and subsequent sweeps, hardwired detectors in the building, and those worn by first responders were not triggered to elevated carbon monoxide levels,” an Aug. 31 statement by LMC said. “All devices were tested and found to be operational. Investigations continued throughout the day by county inspectors, utilities representatives, professional contractors and college facilities staff. No natural gas leaks were found, and this was eliminated as the possible cause.”

The cause of the incident had yet to be determined as of Aug. 31.

“Additional testing concluded that all equipment is normally functioning, with the release of carbon monoxide below regulatory limits,” the Aug. 31 LMC statement said. “Officials have not been able to replicate the conditions that led to the initial evacuation.”

The incident started after midnight on Aug. 30, when students started reported feeling unwell to staff.

“In an abundance of caution, we evacuated the building and emergency services was called,” Lees-McRae College’s Vice President for Planning and External Relations Blaine Hansen said on Aug. 30.

LMC evacuated the Avery Residence Hall to investigate after a call was placed to Banner Elk Volunteer Fire Department at 12:29 a.m. that morning, according to the Aug. 31 statement. Gas was turned off to the building soon after the incident was reported, Hansen said.

Hansen said that approximately 160 students live in Avery Residence Hall. According to LMC’s website, Avery Residence Hall houses female students from freshmen to seniors.

Students were transported to and received treatment at Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, Watauga Medical Center in Boone and Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine.

“Approximately 70 students were later transported to area hospitals, where they were treated with symptoms commonly associated with exposure to carbon monoxide,” the Aug. 31 statement said. “By midday, all students were released by local medical personnel.”

The displaced students were housed elsewhere on campus.

“We are temporarily accommodating the residents in King-Shivell Lounge and Evans Auditorium, along with food service in Wily’s Bar and Grill,” LMC said in a social media post on Aug. 30. Small groups of students were escorted through the building to pick up personal effects that day as well.

Avery Residence Hall was re-opened on 8 p.m. on Aug. 31, the college stated, more than 37 hours later.

“The college is incredibly grateful for all emergency services and health care professionals who helped us and came together... to make sure that everyone is safe and well cared for,” Hansen said. “Lees-McRae is grateful for assistance from local emergency and health professionals with special thanks to the local EMS teams, Banner Elk Police Department, Banner Elk Volunteer Fire Department, Appalachian Regional Health System and Avery County Schools.”

During inspections, an unrelated code violation was found in a natural gas regulator by Avery County Director of Inspections and Planning Tommy Burleson, which was addressed prior to the building re-opening, the Aug. 31 LMC statement said.

“The Avery County Inspection department and the Avery County Fire Marshal feel that all appropriate measures have been taken, from testing of individual equipment units, to canvassing all residential sleeping areas, to ensuring that we addressed this separate concern,” Burleson said. “We have issued a certificate of compliance so the building can return to operation.”

LMC stated that nine new hardwired carbon monoxide detectors were installed in Avery Residence Hall and additional detectors were being installed in the sleeping rooms of all residence halls on campus.

“Our students obviously experienced health impacts related to this event,” LMC President Lee King said. “Despite not being able to pinpoint a direct source, the safety of our students is our top priority. The additional monitoring equipment being installed this weekend exceeds all North Carolina building codes and standards. Student safety at Lees-McRae is paramount.”

“I have nothing but the highest respect and appreciation for this entire community as we have worked through this incident,” King added. The initial emergency response, the support of regional medical services, and the combined efforts of professional contractors and local officials show the real strength of this community. I am also grateful for the resiliency, patience and character exhibited by our students and staff throughout this event.”

Cement truck overturns, driver flown by helicopter

BOONE — First responders used rescue equipment on Aug. 30 to free a driver of a fully loaded cement truck after the vehicle overturned on George Hayes Road.

N.C. State Highway Patrol Trooper R.J. Absher said he received the call at 12:17 p.m. along with personnel from Boone Fire Department and Watuaga Medics. The truck had landed on its driver’s side in the yard of a home in the 2100 block of George Hayes Road, and the male driver was trapped inside.

The truck belonged to Hamby Brothers Concrete Inc. out of Lenoir, according to Absher. He said the driver — Kurtis James Yearwood, 32, of Granite Falls — was traveling to a nearby worksite when he lost control in a curve, crossed the center line, ran off the road to the left and overturned.

Yearwood was flown by WINGS to Johnson City Medical Center with serious injuries. As of Sept. 3, Yearwood was in satisfactory condition, according to Johnson City Medical Center.

Absher believed Yearwood was traveling between 40 and 45 mph, and said the road did not have a posted speed limit. Absher did not think drugs or alcohol were involved, and Yearwood was wearing his seatbelt. As of Aug. 31, Absher had not issued any citations in the incident.

Motorcyclist airlifted after Tuesday collision

BOONE — A woman from Todd was airlifted after her motorcycle collided with a truck on Sept. 3.

Boone Police Officer Steven Mueck said the call for the incident came in at 2:55 p.m. after a 66-year-old woman on a 2012 Harley Davison motorcycle collided with a 2010 Toyota Tacoma truck. The Boone Police Department, Boone Fire, Watauga Medics, N.C. State Highway Patrol and the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene at the intersection of East King Street and Forest Hill Drive.

According to Mueck, the driver of the truck — Vinh Nguyen, 61, of North Wilkesboro — was stopped at the stoplight at the intersection. The motorcyclist had not stopped and collided with the rear end of the truck. Mueck said the motorcycle then flipped and the woman was ejected from the motorcycle.

Mueck estimated the motorcycle to have been traveling at about 30 mph. He had not issued any citations in the incident as of a few hours after the incident.

The motorcycle driver was flown by WINGS to Johnson City Medical Center with life-threatening injuries, Mueck said.

County to refinance Watauga High School loan

BOONE — Watauga County is moving forward with plans to refinance its loans on Watauga High School, which opened in 2010, that could save the county roughly $900,000.

County Manager Deron Geouque stated at the Aug. 20 meeting that the county had the opportunity to modify a current loan with BB&T bank for Watauga High School. The refinancing allows for an amendment to be made to the county’s installment financing contract. The county last amended the contract to refinance the loan in 2012, according to a resolution passed by the commissioners.

County Finance Director Misty Watson said the county has $30,985,000 left to pay off the loan; this amount is before the refinancing. Watson explained that the county is only able to refinance $23,105,000 of its bonds, as some of the bonds have stipulations that they cannot be refinanced.

Watson also said that the county would not know what the new interest rate would be until the deal is final and the bonds are sold. The current interest rate is 2.99 percent, and Watson said the interest rate could be 2.37 percent if the bonds sold on Sept. 3 — which was not the case but used as an example. Geouque explained that the target amount for savings is $900,000, but that the amount could be more or less depending on the agreement that is made.

The commissioners hosted a public hearing on Sept. 3 to allow citizen comment on the proposed refinancing; no citizens signed up to speak. The commissioners approved an engagement letter with Parker Poe Adams and Bernstein LLP as well as an engagement letter with S&P Global Ratings for services provided for the refinancing of the debt at the Sept. 3 meeting.

Parker Poe is serving as bond counsel to the county; S&P Global Ratings is providing credit rating services.

The commissioners also approved a resolution stating that the county is committed to partnering with the U.S. Census Bureau and the state of North Carolina for the 2020 census. Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman said that census day is April 1, and he’s working with the town of Boone, Appalachian State University and others to create a Complete Count Committee to ensure accurate numbers. Furman said typically the low count areas are places where App State students live, and that it’s important to get the word out that students should be counted here in Watauga.

The resolution states that the county agrees to encourage all county residents to participate in events and initiatives that will raise the overall awareness of the 2020 Census and increase participation; provide Complete County Committee members and Census advocates to speak to county and community organizations as needed; support census takers as they help the county complete an accurate count and strive to achieve a complete and accurate count of all persons within the county’s borders.

A third resolution was passed at the meeting that was requested by Vaya Health to support funding to meet the needs of mental health, intellectual/development disabilities and substance abuse disorder services. According to the commissioners agenda, Vaya Health passed a similar resolution at a Aug. 22 board meeting that opposed continued cuts to single-stream funding for individuals using these services.

In August, VAYA Health’s CEO Brian Ingraham said the organization could be experiencing a $9 million cut to funding by the state. He stated then that this would be the fifth year in a row that there have been reductions from the state, and that it would add up to $57 million if the $9 million were cut.

Vaya was asking individual counties to pass resolutions as well, and then Vaya would plan to submit these resolutions to the state legislature, according to the commissioner’s agenda.

“Vaya has already reinvested $18.5 million of its Medicaid savings in a broad array of initiatives designed to directly address the needs of the citizens of Watauga County, including but not limited to expanding facility-based crisis and behavioral health urgent care services, implementing an innovative evidenced-based service to support children aging out of the foster care system, distributing opioid overdose reversal kits, increasing provider rates and expanding medication-assisted treatment,” according to the county’s resolution.

Both commissioners Billy Kennedy and Charlie Wallin spoke about the impacts local services were experiencing due to the projected loss in funding. Wallin, who sits on the board of the Watauga County Department of Social Services, said this was a large topic of discussion for the DSS board last week. He said the lack of funding means less resources and staffing, and the county is having to outsource for some services.

The resolution calls for the state to stop the decrease in single-stream funding and to allow Vaya Health to build up its Medicaid savings so that it can reinvest in services and supports for the community.