Shared from the 2017-05-28 Chattanooga eEdition

YEAR OF RECOVERY

In Gatlinburg, some rebuild while others try to move on

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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL

Gatlinburg is seen after last year’s devastating wildfire.

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GATLINBURG — Until a few weeks ago, the spare rooms and two large trailers at Banner Baptist Church remained filled with clothing, furniture and other items donated for victims of the Sevier County wildfires in November.

The church has a yard sale each May, but this year’s was a giveaway for fire victims, with the hope to get some items to those still in need.

“There were a lot more things left that we wanted people to be aware of,” church member Lisa McCarter said the day before the yard sale. “There’s a lot of stuff, and a lot of people, that still haven’t gotten back on their feet.”

McCarter and her husband, Kevin, are one of three families whose journeys the Knoxville News Sentinel has been tracking monthly. Six months after the wildfires, they’ve chosen to stay in Gatlinburg and rebuild.

Allan Rivera and his girlfriend, Lelin Romero, Honduran immigrants, also will stay with a goal of stable long-term housing and jobs.

Susan and Glenn Stocks, owners of the Tudor Inn that burned, may not. They’re among the Gatlinburg residents unhappy with the way the city has handled the disaster and frustrated with the recovery process. Their property is for sale; their future, they think, lies elsewhere.

THE MCCARTERS

The neighborhood around Banner Baptist Church was particularly hard hit. Fires wiped out the church’s fellowship hall and destroyed the homes of seven members in a congregation where weekly church attendance usually hovers around 20.

McCarter, an interior designer, offered to design a makeshift fellowship hall for the church, a temporary replacement while the church decides whether to rebuild.

For the church, the fires have had a unifying effect, McCarter, 51, said.

“It’s more or less rallied people to take a more active role in community restoration,” she said. “It’s actually been a good thing.”

All church members who lost homes have either rental properties or are working on rebuilding their homes, she said.

“It’s slow,” said Mc- Carter, who saw ground breaking on her own home last month. “It’s coming. We have the firstfloor foundation in, so the next step is to start on the second-story structure.”

The church plans to use its fellowship hall for temporary housing for fire relief workers who may come to help rebuild homes this summer.

“It might help them with some of their costs,” McCarter said. “It’s a way of trying to give back for some of the assistance we got.”

THE RIVERAS

If the McCarters represent a connection to Gatlinburg’s faith communities and rebuilding efforts, Rivera and his girlfriend, Lelin Romero, and their children are a tie to the immigrant population and downtown restaurants.

For several months, the family lived in a house in Pigeon Forge they found on Craigslist. This month, they moved to a house in Gatlinburg, just a few blocks from the restaurant where Rivera works and where his girlfriend also recently found a job.

Now they’re paying close to $2,000 a month in rent for two houses. The family received relief money from the Dollywood Foundation and a $10,000 donation from a News Sentinel reader touched by their story, but their rent is quickly eating into their savings.

This month, the family found a snake and mice in their Pigeon Forge home, where electrical problems have rendered half the house without electricity, Rivera, 29, said.

A recent windstorm in the Gatlinburg area knocked over some trees on the property and raised concerns about the large glass windows that make up nearly one side of the house.

So when Romero’s brother asked them if they wanted to go in on a house in downtown Gatlinburg, where they’d been hoping to live anyway, they agreed. But they haven’t been able to get out of the two-year lease they signed at the Pigeon Forge property and are looking for someone to sublet.

Yet, Rivera said, even with the extra expense, the move was a good one. The Gatlinburg house is just a few blocks from the restaurant where he and Romero work, so they can walk to work. Their 10-year-old son Simon sometimes missed school if he couldn’t get a ride in Pigeon Forge; now he can walk or take the bus. Romero, who doesn’t drive, had more limited options for work at the old house.

They had always hoped to move back to Gatlinburg, but Rivera said he wasn’t counting on finding anything so soon.

“I don’t want to lose this place,” he said. “It’s much better for all of us.”

THE STOCKSES

Susan Stocks spent most of March and April buried under paperwork tied to the total destruction of the Tudor Inn, a bed-and-breakfast she and husband Glenn co-owned with her brother and cousin.

Because many of her business records and most of their possessions burned with the inn, Stocks, an accountant, had to do painstaking reconstruction when filing their taxes and 10 insurance claims.

“Finally, I have a breather,” she said, sitting on a recent Friday afternoon on the Tudor Inn’s terrace, where only the flagstone, stone staircase and part of a garden wall still stand.

It was the first time since the fire cleanup Stocks had spent time there, other than to sprinkle grass seed and hang a large “For Sale” banner.

It brought to her mind happier times, when they’d serve afternoon tea on the terrace for the inn’s guests, enjoying the breeze and watching weekend traffic inch along, bumperto-bumper, through the downtown strip.

As she watched the substantially lighter Friday traffic, Stocks said she hopes someday such happy memories will overtake the bitterness she feels right now toward the loss of her business.

With downtown Gatlinburg “still there, and us so close,” it hurts that “nothing was said, and no evacuation,” Stocks said. She said that as the water ran through downtown “like a river” on Nov. 28, the worst night of the wildfires, neither of the hydrants on either side of her property was ever opened. “That made me feel unsafe and insecure in this town.”

Stocks has gone to several city commission meetings and listened to others ask the questions in her own mind: Who made the decision to save downtown at the expense of other properties? Why was there no evacuation? What’s being done about post-fire water and ground pollution? How will federal funds sent to help Gatlinburg residents be spent? When will the Mountain Tough money be audited?

Six months later, “local officials still continue to refuse to answer any of the citizens’ questions that they have been asked at all of the meetings,” she said. “The response is always, ‘Well, we’ll have to formulate an answer and get back to you.’ … If you just tell the truth, maybe you don’t have to ‘formulate answers.’”

So the Stockses’ answer is to sell, as most of their neighbors on West Holly Ridge Road are. Stocks said property owners were initially told they could “build on the same footprint” but later learned new regulations would, for example, require wider easements, and forbid parking spaces where cars would have to back into the street to leave. Now “for sale” signs dot the short road.

Realtors told the property owners each plot is about a half-acre and should bring about $300,000. That’s enough for a new start in a new place, Stocks said.

It won’t be another bedand-breakfast, she added; at their ages, with the loss of their investment, the Stockses will need full-time jobs with health insurance. Susan hopes to find work as an accountant, Glenn as an X-ray technician — the jobs both worked before becoming innkeepers and resumed after the Tudor Inn burned. They plan to sell an apartment building they co-own on Hemlock, where they’re currently living.

Last week, the couple visited Asheville, N.C., a possible new destination.

Renovating and running the Tudor Inn “was our dream, and we enjoyed it thoroughly,” Stocks said. “But I think in order to get through all this, you can’t look back. You’ve got to move forward. You’ve got to find another dream.”

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