On November 28, 2016, 1 year ago today, one of the most dangerous fires in Tennessee history swept through the Gatlinburg area, claiming 14 precious lives and destroying more than 2,000 businesses and homes. Bred from a complex of fires, the largest of which began atop Chimney Tops 2 (a peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park), efforts were made to both contain and douse the fire, but the relentless 40-mile-per-hour winds proved too great, spreading the fire across natural boundaries and towards the city of Gatlinburg. Where the 2016 Gatlinburg Fires took so much and left very little, the people of Gatlinburg have proved strong, continuing to rebuild, restore, and recover from this devastating event. They’re staying #GatlinburgStrong.
Restoration and Recovery
Exchanging smoke amidst the darkness for hope indwelled in light, Gatlinburg has made tremendous recovery efforts to not only rebuild homes and structures that were lost but also restore hearts and souls that were impacted. Though the strength of the Gatlinburg citizens is impeccable, the aid and support from across the nation over the last year has been a vital part in rehabilitating the area after the fires in Gatlinburg. The Chimney Tops Trail has since reopened to the public, businesses have been re-established in the community, and healing has spread among the people.
While Sevier County emergency plans and TEMA (Tennessee Emergency Management Agency) and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds are crucial in the recovery of the city, the people of Gatlinburg have really come together in this great time of need, founding the Mountain Tough Recovery Team to assist those who have been adversely affected by the Gatlinburg Fires. With the aim of relief, stabilization, and recovery, MTRT helps connect victims to counseling services and welcomes donations of time or money from the public. (Due to an overwhelming amount of generous goodwill, in-kind donations are not needed at this time.)
Case Management Program
With the goal of reaching familial stability, the Case Management Program was designed to provide financial support on a case-by-case basis to renters and homeowners.
Home Rebuild Program
As the name suggests, the Home Rebuild Program is focused on helping homeowners rebuild by connecting them to volunteer ministries, government programs, and financial assistance.
Property Clean Up Program
In order to rebuild homes, homeowner lands must be cleared and prepped properly, which is where the Property Clean Up Program comes in.
Voices of Gatlinburg
In place of the rising smoke arose the Voices of Gatlinburg, a heartfelt idea made reality by Jeremy Cowart, a passionate photographer, and his warm-hearted friends to raise awareness across not only the state but also the nation. By sharing the personal stories of those impacted through a series of artistic photographs that contrast the victims on white mattresses against their blackened properties, a uniquely therapeutic way to heal was provided. These photos truly demonstrate the survival and strength of the Gatlinburg people; you can see them in person on the Forest Memorial Interpretive Trail atop Anakeesta Mountain. There a soothing wind chime awaits — forever resounding among the mountains in remembrance of the brave souls who fought, the beloved lives lost, and the survivors who lived to tell the tale.
Quotes from Survivors
- “I saw what looked like snow, so I put my hand out and the small flake fell into my hand. I realized it was ash. I would have never thought that within a few hours I would be without my home. My belongings were reduced to ashes. I’m just grateful to have survived.”
- “I had to make the hardest phone call to my wife and kids, and tell them that everything we owned was gone. We are going to rebuild and this won’t run us off. We will be back.”
- “We are so grateful to God for sparing our lives, and we now want to use our lives to help our friends and neighbors…”
- “…The local community here is extremely close, strong and generous. People here live simply, and they are just thankful for what they have, instead of stressing about what they don’t. I think this is one of the most beautiful places in the world and I am fortunate to call this my home.”
- “Now it’s time to rebuild putting all regret and disappointment behind us…This tragedy has reinstated my faith in mankind…I will boomerang all of this love and compassion right back to my home community so that we all can rise up stronger and better than ever before!”
On November 28, 2017, Gatlinburg and Sevier County will hold a special ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the 2016 fires in Gatlinburg. This event will show appreciation to first responders, inform the community about a project to create a lasting memorial for the 14 lives lost, and celebrate the recovery progress made one year to date. All are welcome to the 5:00 p.m. service at the Rocky Top Sports World Complex, which served as a key Red Cross shelter in the aftermath of the 2016 Gatlinburg Fires.
Spread awareness and reach out with love to the Mountain Tough community with the hashtag #GatlinburgStrong — a symbol of the people’s immeasurable endurance.