As residents and business owners in California’s wine country take stock of the damage done by wildfires, a destination on the other side of the country is watching with the unique understanding and empathy that can only come from having lived through the same thing.
In November of 2016, wildfires tore through the eastern corner of Tennessee, damaging thousands of structures and killing 14 people. It hit the main economy – tourism – hard, particularly on the eve of the holidays, when people were set to pour in for the winter break, and it sent attractions into despair, wondering when, and if, the visitors would return.
But one thing no fire could ever kill was the resilience of the area and the solidarity of its residents. Damages were repaired and homes are continuing to be rebuilt. And ultimately, the visitors did return. This month, the community took the opportunity to reflect on the past year, and to allow itself to look ahead.
“It’s a sad story but it’s been an amazing story,” said Leon Downey, tourism director for the City of Pigeon Forge. “I’ve been in this job for 29 years and while this was tragic, it pulled our community together.”
The LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge was pressed into service as an emergency shelter.
“We had over 500 people coming in after the fires started,” said Downey. “A lot of people had lost their homes and their positions at work; they were just in shock.”
Tennessee responded, sending food, bottled water and clothing to the building. Then, said Downey, “the Red Cross took over and that was a blessing.”
The LeConte Center had nine sports events scheduled for 2017 and according to Downey, none of those cancelled their plans or moved their destinations. And that, he said, was amazing in itself.
“People saw the images on the news, and they honestly looked like hell on earth, and those kinds of images really lasted.”
On a trip out of town, notes Downey, “I ran into a couple from Jackson, Mississippi, and I mentioned where I was from and they actually said, ‘Is there anything left in Pigeon Forge? We saw those horrendous images.’ I had to tell them, yes, we were still here and we wanted people to return.”
Another major venue that served as an emergency shelter was Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg. And while the facility did have to cancel several sports events in order to host displaced residents, general manager Lori Moore said, almost all those events have announced plans to return to the facility.
“Our area has bounced back and our visitors are returning,” she said. “Going through such tragedy like that, I had never, ever been so proud of our community leaders. Even through the holiday season last year, most things were in operation.”
Rocky Top not only provided shelter, but fun as well. Once the last of the residents had left the building, it was immediately transformed into the grounds for a children’s event, a meet-and-greet with the athletes from the University of Tennessee football team to help raise the battered spirits of the community.
“It was so good to see,” said Moore. “We had the mascot there, we had everyone. Just for a while, the kids were having so much fun.” She wrestles with emotions for a moment, and then continues. “This is a community of faith. Our city and community leaders and I – we all agreed that Rocky Top had its purpose and was able to serve it. There was a greater plan.”
The word, blessing, is repeated over and over again. Amanda Marr, Sevierville’s director of marketing and communications, says that in the days and weeks following the fires, the tourism staffs of all areas were able to work together to get the word out that the destination was alive and well. Media outlets donated ad space as well.
“It is amazing how the tourism marketing industry reached out to us,” said Marr. “You wouldn’t believe how the community came together. The Gatlinburg Chamber moved into our office for a couple weeks and Pigeon Forge wanted to help as well. I went up and helped with their public relations one day – we were all trying to see what we could to. Being able to help each other was a blessing.”
Part of that, says Downey, is the juxtaposition of the communities.
“Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville – we’re all in the same general area. Most guests see us as one destination: the Smoky Mountains. We’re all a lot different, but we complement one another.”
And with a year of retrospect, the area is trying to open its doors again – but this time, to thank those who have helped.
Pigeon Forge city officials invited more than 300 first responders to a surprise ceremony on November 7 and unveiled a permanent tribute wall as a lasting symbol of the town’s gratitude and appreciation for their efforts. In addition to the first responders, the tribute wall is dedicated to those from all walks of life who came to the city’s aid. Other tributes are planned as well.
“I would say our community is much larger than we ever thought,” said Downey. “People came in to help out, work in distribution centers, they brought in food, they sent volunteers – even the Red Cross said they had never seen this level of support before.”
Moore agrees. “People rose to the occasion. There were things that our staff did that still bring me to tears. One of our homeschool kids walked two miles to get here just to pitch in and help us. I saw people who had lost everything helping others. There was so much generosity.”
Ober Gatlinburg, the area’s ski destination, opened for the season on December 10. Kate Barido, the resort’s director of sales and marketing, said she was initially concerned about keeping up the continuum of the tourism.
“We have a lot of new visitors every year, but we also have the people who have been coming here since they were kids and now they’re bringing their own kids. We even have those third generation people: the grandparents came here on their honeymoon and now their kids are having kids and coming in.”
Community leaders, she adds, stepped up to help and to spread the word. And that, she notes, is something all communities can be involved in.
“One of the reasons we were able to come together so quickly is that we had so many connections. Being involved in your local chamber and government is a way to stay connected. If you’re involved, people will be there to help you.”
Ask anyone in Eastern Tennessee what message they would send to California’s wine country, and you get a long silence. There’s palpable emotion when the responses do come.
“They’re facing the same challenges we are,” says Downey. “I would say you learn your community is larger than you ever thought it was.”
“I told our home office that I probably learned more about leadership in those two weeks than I had in my entire career,” Moore added. “I would tell people not to underestimate what they’re capable of.”
Amanda Marr said she realized the emotional investment many visitors have in the destination as a whole.
“The big takeaway for me came when I was listening to the calls that were coming in. Everything was going on and yet people were saying, ‘I will make it a point to come back.’ Our industry is tourism and I just kept hearing how much people love this place. They wanted to know about Dollywood, but they also wanted to know about this wedding chapel or that cabin. They weren’t just calling to check on tourism, they were calling to check on their memories.”