Ethos of rugged independence in Appalachia spurs neighbors to turn to neighbors

Local residents in Gatlinburg, Tenn. have been buoyed by the legions of volunteers who have descended on the place with their good intentions and growling circular saws.


Americans have always been generous givers. It was evident in the nearly $2 billion they donated to victims of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. It was even more striking a year later when more than two-thirds of all US households gave money to hurricane-related causes – most notably the $5.3 billion that went to residents of New Orleans after truculent hurricane Katrina. 

This is to say nothing of the countless volunteers who showed up, claw hammers in hand, to begin the long resurrection of America’s beloved capital of bohemia.

American generosity has been on display recently in the corrugated hills of Appalachia, too. Hundreds of volunteers and millions of dollars have poured into Gatlinburg, Tenn., and surrounding towns in the wake of last November’s devastating fire, which killed 14 people and destroyed more than 2,100 homes. 

Part of this response reflects that charitable impulse that arises after almost any natural disaster. But part of it reflects something different: As correspondent Doug Struck points out in this week’s cover story, there is an ethos of rugged independence that permeates Appalachia, which  spurs neighbors to turn to neighbors rather than relying on government agencies for help.

Gatlinburg has a long way to go to fully revive. The area is a tourist hub and gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A lot of visitors stayed away in the first few months after the fire, though they have come back since then. Many homes remain to be rebuilt. Some residents have left permanently rather than starting over. Government red tape is a frustration with many of those erecting new houses, as it is in every post-disaster redevelopment effort. 

Yet local residents have been buoyed by the legions of volunteers who have descended on the place with their good intentions and growling circular saws. Doug was impressed, too. A frequent contributor to the Monitor, he has been a national and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. In his more than three decades as a journalist, he has covered stories in all 50 states and in six countries.

What struck him in Gatlinburg was the empathy people felt for their neighbors and how committed they were to helping them. He tells the story of one woman who watched on that night as the fire, in the orange distance, moved relentlessly through her neighborhood. She was sure it had consumed her house. She found out later it had leapt over her home and she felt ... sorry. Sorry that her neighbors had lost their houses. “Why did the fire spare mine?” she asked Doug, tearing up seven months after the blaze. 

Doug was also impressed with the modesty of the volunteers, who toiled long after the national news reporters had left with their cameras. One of them, Kat Humlicek, deflected accolades for the work she was doing, insisting it was she who was inspired by “the abundance of generosity” she found in the community.

Similarly, Jim Bailey, a volunteer from Knoxville, Tenn., kidded gently with a crew of retired men as they raised the wall of a home. As Doug describes the scene, they were “perfectly content in the simple reward of helping someone else.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Ethos of rugged independence in Appalachia spurs neighbors to turn to neighbors
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today