It felt like I was driving through an apocalyptic scene yesterday as I made my first trip back to Gatlinburg since the fire. As I crossed the NC/TN line and began to descend down towards Gatlinburg everything began to turn white, the forest encrusted in frosty crystals. I could see Chimney Tops peeking out from behind it all:
As I drove past the Chimneys I found workers still clearing trees and debris within the park. Charred remains of trees everywhere and the first thing I noticed is that there was no brush, nothing on the forest floor except for scattered blackened tree trunks. The burn path went on for miles, scattered in some places, but still…for miles. It was unbelievable. I could see stone and brick chimneys on the ridges but they were no longer attached to anything. Chimneys surrounded by skeletons of what used to be houses.
I started my day out in Pigeon Forge at the disaster relief distribution center, a huge building filled with donations of every kind:
I was assigned to families as they came in and my job was to help them find clothing, groceries, toiletries and anything else they might need. Everyone’s story was different. One man had lost his job due to the fire and his family needed help with groceries. Another family had lost their home and they were finally able to find an interim place to live but they didn’t have anything to help them make that transition. I helped them find pillows, sheets, and blankets. Then towels and washcloths. It was so overwhelming, trying to figure out what a family might need, when they’ve lost everything. “Underwear?” I asked. “Yes, I didn’t think about that,” the man said sheepishly, and then that led to so many other things like undershirts, socks and long underwear. Next we went to medical because he needed blood strips for his diabetes and then we filled a cart with shampoo, soap, cleaning supplies and groceries. I only worked for four hours and it felt like twenty-four because of all of the emotion involved.
After my shift ended I stayed in Gatlinburg for the afternoon and walked some of the back streets that I’d been down before. It was so cold and there were snowflakes in the air. I just bundled up and had my huge coat hood pulled up and I kept to myself, just on a long walk, trying to be extra respectful of barriers and signs that had been posted to keep people out. The Riverhouse Motor Lodge:
And this was another house:
From a distance everything looked like ash and rubble:
But as I stepped closer, bent down to sift my fingers through some of the ash, I could start to see belongings. I could begin to piece together what had been there before. Like a workshop with a tool box:
I think this car haunted me the most, because there was so much that shocked me about it:
The glass pooling:
Underparts running in liquid form out from the bottom:
Nothing scares me more than fire and water. As I was kneeling down, looking at this car, a truck drove up. It was a friend of the family who once lived there. I was relieved to hear that everyone had gotten out okay. He told me how he’d been at the house early the day of the fire and they never saw a single flame, and then suddenly that night everything was engulfed. I think this is what no one will ever take for granted here again….how far and how quickly embers can travel in the air. Embers can fly, carried by the wind up to two miles. There was no warning.
At the end of the day, I was walking down the main strip in Gatlinburg, past the Aquarium, past the shops, and there were so many people out enjoying the wintery day. It was then that I realized I hadn’t eaten all day so I ducked into a restaurant to warm up. I sat by myself in a restaurant booth and watched the tourists pass. After taking my order, the waitress was cleaning up the booth in front of me when suddenly she burst into tears. I asked if she was okay and she nodded. Then she walked over to show me the bill from the couple who had just left…they had left her a $50 tip. She said something like, “I needed this today, to save Christmas.” Then I burst into tears, and hugged her. I immediately knew part of her story without her even saying another word.
I found this piece of paper in my pocket this morning….a reminder of one of the many families I was paired with yesterday at the distribution center:
The young woman spoke Spanish but there was a shortage of translators. The tiny slip of paper told me what I needed to get started: there were five in her family, four being children. I took her slowly through the center, aisle by aisle, and lifted up every single item and she would nod or shake her head. Every once in a while I got a smile from her. Towards the end of her visit I watched as she pressed her hand against the side of her stomach under the oversized sweatshirt she was wearing. “Baby?” I asked her and she nodded. “Coming soon?” I asked and in broken English she said, “January.” Even though we were really not supposed to give them more than a week’s worth of food I directed her back over to the baby section and we loaded up with some diapers and other items. I don’t really know what her full story was, or how she was affected by the fire, but I could tell she was in need. With a cart full of groceries and personal products she paused for a moment before asking, “Toys? Christmas?” I shook my head apologetically. She had come so early in the morning that there were no toys available yet. It was so busy and chaotic I feel like I didn’t have time to really think clearly. I should have found a way to follow up with her. I hope she’ll come back to the center in a few days and pick up some toys for her children.
It’s all so awful that it becomes overwhelming. I overheard one man telling someone that he was starting chemotherapy next week because he has cancer. As I watched him pick out a toothbrush to call his own again I almost had to leave the building for a moment. The people who are there every single day in this disaster are heroes. Smokies Strong. That’s the only way to describe them. I saw a lot of hard things yesterday but I also saw strength and compassion beyond words.
My friend Renae Winchester has been writing about her experience across the mountain as well, and why it means so much to her to help:
“My Father-in-Law was shaken, couldn’t remember his address. The dogs were still in the house, or so I had been told. His wife’s dogs. His wife whom we buried only a couple months ago. There was no warning, no evacuation notice, just a rap on the door, and an officer who grabbed him by the elbow and placed him in the back of the patrol car.
Flames were at the property line.
Flames were down the driveway.
Flames were on both sides of the main road.
Flames. Flames and wind that sounds like the ravenous demons from hell were walking the earth seeking whatever they could devour.” -from What #SmokiesStrong Really Means
I wish that there was more in the media about this fire and how many homes burned. Over 2,400 homes and business burned to the ground. 14 people dead. 175 injured. 20,000 acres scorched. And all from human hand.
I don’t know the best way to help but I know that Jeremy Cowart has launched a phenomenal photography project highlighting families affected and linking to their gofundme pages.
Close to my heart are all the animals that have also been affected. There are still a huge amount of unclaimed pets at the fairgrounds (Sevier County Humane Society) and there is a desperate need for volunteers there too. I hope to get there this week.
One of the biggest issues right now is affordable housing, you can visit Mountain Tough to find ways to help.
Another way to help….just go to Gatlinburg and eat in their restaurants and support the businesses. And please help keep Gatlinburg in the headlines!