Tennesee Mountain Community Getting Back on Its Feet After Devastating Wildfire

By Steve Ahillen | August 9, 2017
Burned structures are seen from aboard a National Guard helicopter near Gatlinburg, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Thousands of people raced through a hell-like landscape to escape wildfires that killed several people and destroyed hundreds of homes in the Great Smoky Mountains. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

“Mountain Tough” was a slogan Mayor Mike Werner of Gatlinburg, Tenn. proclaimed in the aftermath of a Nov. 28 blaze that destroyed or damaged more than 2,400 structures, caused more than $1 billion in damages and killed 14 people.

“This is the most amazing place to live,” said Werner, who lost his own residence in the fire. “This is our home. People need to know everything is going to be OK and we’re going to bounce back.”

Bouncing back has tested the legendary stoic resolve of this Smoky Mountain community. Though much rebirth already has been accomplished, there is still a long road ahead.

“In all my years as county mayor, I have never seen such destruction as was caused by the wildfires of late November,” said County Mayor Larry Waters. “Rebuilding has begun and we are pleased with the progress. I am confident that we will fully recover.”

More than 12 million people visit Sevier County annually. They head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoy Pigeon Forge’s Dollywood theme park, and frequent the candy shops of Gatlinburg.

That industry took a huge hit. Dollars were off $19 million for December in an area where tourism has a $2 billion economic impact annually.

The good news is that the Sevier County Economic Development Council projects tourist revenue will be up 3 percent this year over last.

Almost all of the fire damage was around Gatlinburg. The nearby tourism towns of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville went generally untouched. In Gatlinburg itself, the attractions along the Parkway – including popular Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – received mostly just smoke damage.

Gatlinburg was closed for less than two weeks and city leaders continue to fight what they see as a national misconception that the town was burned to the ground.

“They think there is no Gatlinburg to come to,” said local businessman Eric Hensley several weeks after the fire.

An estimated $922 million in incurred losses were filed because of the fire, according to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.

The number does not include the substantial loss of uninsured or under-insured property.

In addition, fighting the fire cost more than $8.8 million, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Those staggering numbers have been answered to a degree by millions of dollars in assistance.

A document was provided on request from USA TODAY – TENNESSEE by the state of Tennessee that showed more than $45 million in federal and state assistance. The total included such items as $3.2 million from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation for waste management and $5.8 million from the federal Department of Labor for worker recovery efforts.

Some of the aid came in the form of $12.45 million in low interest loans from the federal Small Business Administration. Around $16 million in tax refunds and credits were also listed.

“I am grateful to the General Assembly for passing a state budget that includes $21.4 million for programs to help Sevier County thrive again,” Gov. Bill Haslam said.

Much federal money became available after Sevier County was declared a federal disaster area by then President Barack Obama on Dec. 15 including $3.3 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds.

Favorite daughter Dolly Parton raised more than $11 million, with more than $9 million coming from a telethon at which her musical friends performed.

“I was happy to do my part as a Smoky Mountain girl,” Parton said.

Numerous other private funding efforts have raised several million dollars more.

“The outpouring of support was incredible,” said Haslam. “… It’s become a cliche but it’s true, these people are mountain tough, and I am so grateful for the way they have worked together over the past six months, neighbor helping neighbor, taking care of each other and getting their lives and businesses back up and running.”

More than 11,000 of the acres burned were in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The park has more than 10 million visitors annually, more than double the next most-visited national park.

Though it was a significant burn area in the half-million acre park, only about 10 percent of that burned area was burned severely.

Park officials’ prediction that the woodlands would bounce back quickly has proved accurate. New growth is well underway through most of the burn areas.

All but four of the 17 trails closed within the park in the fire’s aftermath have been reopened. Among the four is Chimney Tops Trail, one of the park’s most popular routes. The Chimney Tops 2 fire, which spread to cause most of the devastation in Sevier County, started near the top of that trail.

The park received $700,717 in emergency fire stabilization funding and hopes to acquire $907,500 more spread over three years, all from the National Park Service, GSMNP deputy superintendent Clay Jordan said.

The fire was blamed for the death of two black bears.

Since their Tudor Inn burned to the ground, co-owners Glenn and Susan Stocks have been digging through the mountains of red tape required after all on the documentation on their business went up in flames Nov. 28.

The Stocks are selling the inn property as are some others for a

Burned structures are seen from aboard a National Guard helicopter near Gatlinburg, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Thousands of people raced through a hell-like landscape to escape wildfires that killed several people and destroyed hundreds of homes in the Great Smoky Mountains. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

ariety of reasons. Older structures were built before building codes and owners are now being told they will have to meet those codes when rebuilding. Some are frustrated with what they say are a lack of answers from public officials. Some were uninsured. Some are just too scared to return.

But many are staying and rebuilding.

Lisa McCarter and her family lost their home, but they are rebuilding and, through their church, are helping other families put their lives back together.

“It’s more or less rallied people to take a more active role in community restoration,” she said. “It’s actually been a good thing.”

Allen Rivera is among the many immigrants who work in the restaurant and tourism business in Sevier County. He also lost everything in the fire. But, his family found a new home even though half of the home is often without electricity and they recently found a snake inside.

Glenn Warren, whose Chalet Village home was burned to the ground, was having it rebuilt when a wind incident on May 4 knocked down part of the frame even as it was being constructed.

“We’ll do this together,” he said as he looked over the piles of broken wood. “It’s taken longer than we originally thought, but we’ll do it.”

Topics Catastrophe Natural Disasters Wildfire Tennessee

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