Above: Chimney Tops 2 Fire November 27, 2016. Photo by Brett Bevill.
It’s been six months since a wildfire tore through the Tennessee mountain town of Gatlinburg, but political contests hinging on — among other things — an allegedly botched evacuation are heating up.
With more than 300 members on its closed Facebook group, Gatlinburg Fire Survivors has billed itself as a support group and a “safe place to tell your stories, vent your frustrations, and talk with others who went through the same thing.” But according to the Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper, the group in recent months has begun lobbying for accountability, getting only mixed results and leading some to challenge incumbent elected officials for their political seat.
While they say they support the first responders who scrambled to evacuate the town when the fire blew up Nov. 28, they — and many others — have criticized the lack of public information and communication breakdowns that hindered timely evacuations.
Issues surrounding the Gatlinburg evacuation have been widely reported, including by Wildfire Today. Essentially, city officials downplayed the threat early in the incident. Then, when hurricane-force winds tore through the region and fanned the flames, a “communication failure” caused by disabled communication services prevented the immediate issuance of a timely alert. Alternative sources of emergency communication — local media, for example — had only a marginal effect.
“Communications between the agencies was interrupted due to disabled phone, internet, and electrical services. Due to this communication failure, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned,” local, state and federal authorities wrote in a joint news release at the time. “Despite the catastrophic events that created barriers to communication, officials utilized all resources available to them at the time to warn the public of the impending threat.”
Fast-forward six months, questions and demands for accountability still abound, especially from survivors groups whose members say they suffer from PTSD as a result of the frantic evacuation.
“From the perspective of the Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors, those who wield political power in Gatlinburg have labeled them as nothing more than a band of troublemakers. Appearing at public meetings has been fruitless,” the newspaper reported this week.
— knoxnews (@knoxnews) May 7, 2017
The divide hit a turning point of sorts over the weekend when a former city councilman held a town hall and outlined his reasoning for seeking a return to the five-person council. From the Knoxville News Sentinel:
He said he decided to seek a seat on council after seeing too many quality programs and events “fall by the wayside” under the existing leadership. He said he was responsible for securing the downtown flood warning system when he was on council and wants a more comprehensive system to deal with a multitude of potential emergencies.
Hawkins’ flood warning system, which consisted of a string of public address speakers, wasn’t activated Nov. 28 until the majority of Gatlinburg’s residents had already decided to evacuate.
The election is scheduled for May 16.
Fourteen people died as a result of the wildfires and nearly 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed by flames that charred more than 17,000 acres in and around Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
On a related news front, Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation gave $10,000 each to nearly 900 families displaced by deadly Tennessee wildfires to assist with the damages, the Associated Press reported. The singer said in a statement that the final distribution of checks was made this week to families in Sevier County.
“I’m as proud of being part of this, helping my people, as anything I’ve ever done in my life,”Parton said Monday, according to CNN. “And our next step is to continue to look at what’s ahead for everyone and our long-term recovery here.”