Gatlinburg residents, business owners want answers one year after devastating wildfires

GATLINBURG, Tenn. - Even though her dream of owning an inn came true for just a brief period of time, Susan Stocks is proud of their three short years.

“We have a legacy,” Stocks says, while walking through the rubble that still sits on the property.

“Our dream was to move to the Smoky Mountains and get a bed and breakfast,” she said. “So as opposed to dreaming your life, we lived our dream. And we followed our dreams.”

She still touts the fact that Gatlinburg’s Tudor Inn had some of the best reviews and highest ratings of any property in the area.

It has been almost one year since some of the worst fires in Tennessee history ravaged Gatlinburg and the surrounding area, killing 14 people and leaving thousands of structures destroyed. For Stocks, it was unequivocally the worst year of her life. It was so bad, in fact, that she and her husband decided they needed a new start—somewhere else.

They now live in Asheville, North Carolina, about 80 miles from Gatlinburg.

“I’m only now sleeping [again] since I actually moved away,” Stocks said. “You worry about what else has to be done or what you’ll do, or even fire nightmares. We’ve all gone through that.”

“I think the hardest part for me is had there been any preparation, any warnings,” Stocks said.

Adding to her anguish, she says, is the feeling that too many questions remain unanswered. She believes the city and county waited too long to evacuate and wants to know why an evacuation order didn’t come sooner than the 8 p.m. on Nov. 28, when just minutes later structures were going up in flames.

“I would just love to know what they all were thinking.”

She also believes there was a strong desire on the part of the city to hold off on any mass evacuation in order to protect business interests in downtown Gatlinburg.

City Manager Cindy Ogle takes issue with the accusations.

“I do believe in my heart of hearts — and will believe until the day I die — that everyone did the best that they could with the best information that they had to save lives and save property,” Ogle said.

She says that for her the fires were a “double whammy” — not only was she responding to the fires on behalf of the city, but she and her husband lost their home, as well.

“In the initial days the difficulty was, I guess, containing emotion so that we could provide the leadership that needed to be provided in a very difficult time,” she said.

But city leadership is exactly what’s been called into question by some people in the community — people like Susan Stocks.

Ogle strongly disputes the allegation that the city waited to evacuate in order to keep tourists in the city for economic reasons, saying it’s “not true.”

She says that because of how quickly the wind patterns changed, the fires started moving more quickly and in different directions. It was because of that, she says, that she never even had a chance to evacuate her husband from their own home.

Susan Stocks and certain other residents also feel the city hasn’t been open or upfront and has been unwilling to respond to questions.

The city has even been accused of stifling residents’ first amendment rights by putting limits on who—and on what topic—people are allowed to make public comments on at the city’s commission meetings.

Citing too many “verbal attacks” the city implemented Resolution 939 in June, which forces anyone who wants to address an issue off the official agenda to submit their question at least five days in advance or it won’t be considered. Ogle feels the resolution was necessary to keep their meetings from getting out of hand.

More than anything, Susan Stocks just wants to know that Ogle and other city officials are making changes so that if a disaster like this were to happen again — even though they no longer live there —their neighbors would be taken care of.

Ogle says they are, in fact, making changes, like working to improve the emergency notification system and changing the protocol for how text message alerts are blasted out. She also says the city will soon have their own AM radio channel.

Asked if she would have done anything differently, Ogle admits that “absolutely” they have learned lessons.
 
“I think it would be ridiculous if I answered you any other way,” she adds.

But she declined to go into further detail about what she may have done differently until an independent review of the city’s actions, currently underway, can be completed.

The city hired ABS consulting to put together that review. They expect that report to be completed by the end of the year.
 

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