Signs of new life | Gatlinburg begins to rebuild after devastati - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Signs of new life | Gatlinburg begins to rebuild after devastating wildfires

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WDRB) -- As clouds hover over the majestic Smoky Mountains, the view takes a backseat to what’s right in front of it.

“This was an unprecedented, unbelievable, horrific happening,” Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle said.

Twisted, rusted metal, crumbled bricks and shattered dishes give way to broken dreams.

“A whole lot of memories and 45 years of marriage ... gone,” Gatlinburg resident Sue Thompson said.

Thompson remembers that fiery, November night as 14,000 people tried to escape the city.

“We knew that we were in big trouble,” Thompson said. “Traffic was completely jammed.”

Days later, she found out she lost her home in the fire.

“This was my front door right there," Thompson said as she pointed to what used to be her home. "And that was my mat, and you went up the steps to a little deck that went around the house."

But her rental property just several feet away still stands untouched.

“It's a mixed blessing in a way."

Homes scattered along the mountainside land on both ends of the spectrum of destruction. Either all or nothing.

“There must have been 90 houses up here," Thompson said. "And for eight maybe to be standing..."

In total, the fires took more than 2,500 homes and buildings. The devastation that fell on Gatlinburg two-and-a-half months ago took 14 lives and left more than 130 people injured.

“That is something that we will carry with us forever," Ogle said. "That we will have in our hearts and prayers and thoughts."

Wildfires ravished the area after two teens allegedly started a fire the on the Chimney Tops at the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. At the time, Gatlinburg was in a four-month drought and was hit with hurricane strength winds that threw large, fiery embers all around.

“It was the perfect storm in a horrible way,” Ogle said.

She too was one of hundreds who lost her home.

“I guess the most difficult thing is just really to wrap your head around it and to accept what has happened,” she said.

As the days become nights and the time passes into weeks, then months, each moment leads to a new normal.

“We are open. We are alive and well," Ogle said. "And yes, there is a lot of rebuilding to do and recovery to do, but we are very much committed to that."

Ogle said there have been a lot of misconceptions that the entire city burned down. And in a city whose only economy is tourism, a lack of visitors could make the perfect storm even worse.

“We're wanting folks to come back and support us, and visit us,” she said.

“Even if you're just coming to look and see, come back and see it as we put it back together," Thompson said. "Come back and spend some money and spend some time."

“Everything that you remember about Gatlinburg, whether it's Ripley's Aquarium, the Space Needle, Ober in Gatlinburg, the Tram and all points in between, those favorite eateries, the pancake houses and the shopping are all still here,” said Marci Claude with the Gatlinburg Visitors and Convention Bureau.

The main stretch downtown is surprisingly untouched and unchanged, but just blocks away in about any direction, it’s a much different story. Cars are left abandoned and charred, marked in spray paint and wrapped in caution tape. Nearby trees are so scorched it looks as if they have been covered in black paint.

More than 17,000 acres burned inside and outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some areas will take five to ten years to recover. Others will be much longer.

“It could take 70 years or more to get back to what we know now,” park spokesperson Molly Schroer said.

Schroer says wildlife has already moved back into the burned areas, and the new habitats have already made way for new species. She added that the park's staff will be learning from this fire for years to come.

“We have a team now that's in the park that's looking at the decisions that were made at the time, so we can educate other parks about environmental things and factors that contributed to this and how we can improve things in the future,” she said.

With spring right around the corner and vegetation burned off, Schroer says mudslides are a real possibility, but the park is working to keep it's culverts clean.

So as the construction and rebuilding process continues, that devastating November night will not be forgotten.

“It's going to be a new Gatlinburg,” Thompson said.

As signs of new life and daffodils grow amid the rubble and lonely fireplaces where homes once stood, it shows from the ashes there will again be beauty. 

And as the sun continues to rise every day, so do the citizens of Gatlinburg.

“Just really, really strong people ... That's what we are,” Ogle said. “We are mountain tough.”

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