USA Society Focus

After the fire: Volunteers help Gatlinburg find hope

working together

In this time of hand-wringing over a divided country and boiling civic hostilities, the volunteers living on church cots and in campers in a fire-ravaged mountain town seem an affirmation of spirit.

Kat Humlicek, an AmeriCorps volunteer, wields a chainsaw to help clear fallen trees on the property of Dean Cato in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Doug Struck
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  • Doug Struck
    Correspondent

Dean Cato called with growing worry. Once, twice, six times, he says, he called the Gatlinburg authorities Nov. 28 to ask if the raining ash from forest fires meant he should leave his home.

Stay put, he says they told him. It’s just smoke.

When he looked outside and saw the flames leaping over the ridge behind his house, he, his wife, and 14-year-old son ran to their two cars and raced away as the fire tasted their home.

Careening down the Tennessee mountain road, flames on both sides, the tires on his wife’s Jeep melted. His daughter’s pet rabbits – she was staying with her grandmother – perished. His house was left in ashes.

Mr. Cato is furious with local authorities. And he says he has gotten no help from them since the fire. He quit work to build his home again. But on a recent morning, he had only praise for six strangers toiling away in the sun and sweat and gnats to help him clear his property of the latest calamity: a wind storm that blew down dozens of fire-tinged trees, crushing the new roof he had just built, knocking Cato out, and dislocating his shoulder.

“I’m incredibly grateful to these people,” says Cato, grabbing a chainsaw to work alongside the volunteers. Partway up the ridge, AmeriCorps volunteer Kat Humlicek ran her own snarling saw on a fallen 80-foot oak tree. Below her, a management team from a Knoxville credit union had traded their desk jobs to haul debris for a day.

“We think this is our community too,” says Chris Boler, part of the team from the credit union, named ORNL. “So it’s in our DNA to help.”  

It’s a scene repeated around the mountains of Gatlinburg, which was raked six months ago by an express-train fire that killed 14 people and destroyed 2,175 homes in the county. The town was spared. Tourists now jam back into the carnie arcades and honky-tonk gift stores.

Hikers are traipsing in the adjacent Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But it has been an inspired trickle of volunteers – many of them from churches and colleges dotted throughout Appalachia, others from further away – who have been left to help the neediest of the survivors struggle toward recovery.

“There’s no way I could have done this by myself,” says Cato. “It was killing me.”

'It's in our DNA to help'

Volunteers from around Tennessee say it is part of the rugged independence of Appalachia to turn to neighbors rather than relying on government agencies for help. Other volunteers say they stepped in just because they get more out of helping than watching.

“Oh, I’m no model for anybody else. That’s not my job,” demurs Jim Bailey, a retired engineer from Oak Ridge, Tenn., helping build a new house for an elderly woman left homeless by the blaze. “I just like being out here.”

Yet in this time of hand-wringing over a divided country and boiling civic hostilities, the volunteers living on church cots and in campers in Gatlinburg to help others seems an affirmation of spirit.

Jim Bailey and the crew of retired volunteers are 'a good bunch of guys,' Mr. Bailey says. He says they enjoy the work of volunteering.
Doug Struck
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“If they weren’t here, there’s nobody else to help some of these folks,” says Patty Hopple, coordinator for a group called Volunteer East Tennessee.

The fire started on Chimney Tops Mountain, a much-photographed peak of the national park. Two teenagers have been charged with setting the blaze. It smoldered on the isolated peak over Thanksgiving. But on Nov. 28 it leaped into the arms of a roaring wind, which carried it from ridge to ridge, quickly overcoming mountain homes and businesses.

The flames torched 17,000 acres in and outside the park, causing an estimated $930 million in damages. Tennessee officials said it was the worst fire in the state in a century.

Gatlinburg lies in the creases of the mountains, and many lived on those folds of land. On the outskirts of town, near Cato’s house, homes had stunning views into the blue haze of the Great Smoky Mountains. Here, the wildfire was ruthless – taking nine of every 10 homes, leaving only a few untouched by the whim of wind and embers.

The scene now is a mosaic of the recovery process. Dozens of homes are rising again; carpenters and masons swarm over them as trucks lumber up the curving lanes with building supplies. Some other properties are marked by a flag of surrender: “Lot For Sale” banners planted beside a charred foundation. Still others remain undisturbed, steel girders blackened and twisted by the intense heat, scorched appliances half-buried in rubble.

Those rebuilding had home insurance, or a job or the assets to convince a bank to loan them money to rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration made $12.6 million in grants and loans.

Thousands had fled to shelters, but after they drifted off to relatives or friends, about 490 were left in need, many of them in motels, according to John Mathews, Sevier County’s director of emergency management.

Allan Rivera holds onto his son Nathan as he looks at the remains of their home for the first time on Dec. 5, 2016, in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The family evacuated from their rental cabin before it was completely destroyed by a wildfire. Hurricane-force winds whipped up fires that killed more than a dozen people and damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 buildings in the Great Smoky Mountains tourist region.
Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/AP
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They were showered with heart-felt help. Donations poured in – clothing, furniture, and appliances. Their motel bills were picked up by charities and government grants. Singer Dolly Parton, who grew up in a poor Appalachian family nearby, started a charity that gave each homeless family $10,000 in six months. Churches, foundations, and businesses chipped in.

'I'd have to live in one of those ... storage sheds'

But even the maximum FEMA grant, $33,000, would not rebuild a home, Mr. Mathews notes, and many with no ability to repay the federal loan did not qualify for that. Families who had lived in the mountains for generations often had no insurance and no place to live. Seniors, people with disabilities, the unemployed ... they hit the limits of the aid available, and still had no way to rebuild.

“What could I do? I’d have to live in one of those little storage sheds,” says Glenna Ogle Bjorklund, a septuagenarian, motioning to the prefab structures she has put up on her property just outside Gatlinburg, to store her few remaining things. She and a companion fled when she opened her door to flames on Nov. 28. They started to drive on a narrow lane that clings to the hillside, the only way out, but the road was blocked by a fallen tree.

Ms. Bjorklund grabbed Rachel, her pet Pomeranian, in her arms and leaped down the hillside – “slid the whole way on my butt,” she says. She landed at the bottom at the Travelers Motel, just as the itinerant workers who stayed in the cheap rooms to work tourist jobs were fleeing for their lives.

She begged for help from three men wrestling another man in a wheelchair into their truck.

They drove her to safety. She never saw them again; she ponders if they were angels. Four people in the motel died.

Bjorklund now spends her day watching the frame of a new home rise on her property. The builders are a shifting cast – sometimes a church group, sometimes college kids. Three women from the last crew helped her dig a grave to bury Rachel, who succumbed to the smoke. On this day, Jim Bailey and a crew of retired buddies are putting up the outside walls and headers to a modest three-bedroom, one-bath house for Bjorklund.

'I figure I've got some skills'

Four of the men are from Knoxville, and two from Oak Ridge. Mr. Bailey says he has often worked with the men doing similar volunteer work at Habitat for Humanity.

“It’s a good bunch of guys, and we all work together pretty well,” says Bailey, who jokes with three of the crew in sign language – they are deaf. “A group from another Knoxville church said they are coming up, and two students from the University of Tennessee will be here this afternoon.” A team of volunteers from FedEx have been in and out. Bailey shrugs off the generosity of his own efforts.

“I figure I’ve got some skills, and I have the time to use them,” says Bailey. “When I retired, what else was I going to do? Read books? Write books? Go to the beach? That’s not me.”

Johnnie Beeler supervises the project. At 72, he was brought out of retirement as a construction superintendent by the Appalachian Service Project to oversee construction of 25 houses for survivors of the Gatlinburg fires.

“It’s going to be good to hand this over,” Mr. Beeler says. “Ms. Glenna’s house will be special because it’s the first. Mr. Ogle will be the next one. His wife passed away. He’s 74, low income. If his son hadn’t been with him, he would have died.”

The Appalachia Service Project has been working with low-income families in the region for 49 years, and stepped up to the job at Gatlinburg after the fires. This year, the group will organize work by 17,000 volunteers, many from church or college summer youth programs, says Walter Crouch, chief executive officer of the group.

“The fires were close to home,” says Mr. Crouch. “My first thought was for the low-income families that people won’t think about.” Gatlinburg and Sevier County are known for Dollywood, attractions, and the Great Smoky Mountains. “People think of the entertainment industry, and they think it has money. They don’t think of the people who clean the hotel rooms, wash the dishes, do the maintenance work, or the older retired folks who are on fixed incomes.”

After any disaster, there is a flood of donations. But as time passes, “the national interest moves on,” Crouch says. “It’s hard to keep people focused on the work we are doing.” The homebuilding effort in Gatlinburg has been frustratingly slow, he says, because of the bevy of building permits and multiple jurisdictions – each with its own set of restrictions.

“We are just anxious to get people back in homes,” he says.

'Our job is to bring people together'

Many of the volunteers to Crouch’s organization come from “blue states,” and he is not oblivious to the partisan squabbles sweeping the country.

“Our job is to bring people together. There’s a lot of passion out there and it would be very easy to get involved in arguments,” he says. But the desire of the volunteers to help the disaster victims is a unifying force.

“We believe that getting people out of their comfort zone and getting them into central Appalachia upsets their equilibrium to where they are open to asking life’s tougher questions,” Crouch says. “They have a different attitude about poverty, about their own ability to make a difference, and they understand that life is not about getting, it’s about giving.”

Patty Hopple felt that pull. She closed up her home in Fremont, Ohio, and moved to Tennessee to help distribute donations to the fire victims for three months. She stayed on to help coordinate the debris cleanup for Volunteer East Tennessee.

As the summer and students arrive, she will have as many as 200 volunteers every day. She organizes them in teams of seven. She notices the change in younger volunteers.

“You see the look on their faces at the first debris site, some of them go pale. They realize the people who live at this home lost everything, and unfortunately some lost their lives.

“You look at these kids absorbing this,” she says.

It has changed her, as well. She downsized from a 2,000-square-foot home to 500 square feet and is “learning to live for today, taking nothing for granted, being totally unmaterialistic. Stuff is really not that important,” she says. “I also had to learn to be really flexible and work well with people of all different faiths and politics.”

Daryl Brewer put away chores on his hay farm nearby to work with Ms. Hopple. He values the blue state volunteers – “they’re a funny bunch,” – and appreciates their work.

He has less regard for local government agencies that have, in his view, put too many regulations in the way of rebuilding.

“I’ll be doing this until the need is gone,” he says. “I go into the Wal-Mart, and people come up to me and say ‘thanks.’ I don’t remember them, but they are saying ‘thanks.’ That’s nice.”