Gatlinburg churches, residents survey fire damage

Disaster | ‘We need our great God,’ says Tennessee Baptist director
by Samantha Gobba
Posted 12/02/16, 05:31 pm

As some residents of Gatlinburg, Tenn., return to their fire-ravaged city, churches and other charities are gearing up to help.

Wildfires in eastern Tennessee destroyed nearly 18,000 acres and 700 homes and businesses and killed at least 13 people. The fires began last Wednesday along Chimney Tops Trail, a popular hiker destination in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Officials believe the blaze was “human-caused” and are investigating the case. The steep cliffs and ridges of Chimney Tops made firefighters’ jobs difficult. On Monday, high winds pushed the fires across drought-ridden terrain, sparking new wildfires miles away. Flames swept through the resort town of Gatlinburg and neighboring Pigeon Forge on Tuesday.

Officials called for evacuation, but not before it was too late for many residents and vacationers alike. Some of the dead have been identified, while others remain missing.

“As they continue to comb through different areas there, they are finding the people that didn’t make it out,” David Boettner, vicar of the Diocese of Knoxville, told me.

Boettner drove through the area and visited with parishioners Thursday at the Pittman Center, situated outside of Gatlinburg and housing thousands of evacuees.

He said the destruction was “random,” with charred foundations next to seemingly untouched homes. He has met with eight families who lost everything and guessed from his encounters that perhaps a third of the residents lost their homes. In eastern Tennessee, known for its lush vistas and seldom more than a small brush fire, no one expected this kind of destruction.

“I think people are largely in shock,” Boettner said. “It’s kind of like, when you have a death in the family and you go to the mortuary to view the body for the first time, that’s when it really becomes real, when you see the destruction, and now it starts to come home to you what really has taken place.”

Rains that fell Wednesday night aided exhausted firefighters in extinguishing the blaze. Residents clamoring to return convinced officials to allow homeowners and renters back into some parts of the city Friday morning, despite warnings about fires flaring up from hot soil.

Among the smoldering remains of the town are churches, some burned to the ground, some partly damaged, and others untouched.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gatlinburg suffered no damage, it appears, while 6 miles away, Banner Baptist Church lost its fellowship hall and had fire damage to two other buildings. Just a mile and a half away, Roaring Fork Baptist Church burned entirely to the ground.

“We were planning to rebuild, but we didn’t want to have to do it this way,” Roaring Fork Baptist Church’s pastor Kim McCroskey told me.

The church has been growing, he said, and every Sunday he witnesses more people coming to Christ. In October alone, he told me, 44 people professed faith in Jesus Christ at the church.

“God’s been good to us,” he said. “And if he didn’t think we could handle this, he wouldn’t have allowed it to happen.”

The Gatlinburg Church of Christ also experienced total loss, it posted on its website.

Faith-based groups and other relief organizations are scrambling to help, though actual aid may take time to deliver as authorities limit who can get past checkpoints to the town.

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee Spokesman Jim Wogan told me they are “patiently awaiting permission to go in” and continue the counseling, pregnancy health, and immigration services the organization normally offers in and around Gatlinburg.

In the meantime, Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville called for prayer for the victims and a special offering this weekend in all parishes and mission churches.

Sacred Heart Parish was able to send three truckloads of water, snacks, and other essentials to the area, but Wogan said a bigger need now is funds: “These people are going to need serious help. It’s not going to be for next week. It’s going to be for next month and the aftermath.” 

Also raising funds are the American Red Cross, the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, and the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

Baptist Churches in Lincoln County are planning to take truckloads of supplies, including bottled water, toiletries, and baby care items.

“Above all,” Tennessee Baptist Convention executive director Randy Davis said, “the emotional, physical and economic impact of this event is enormous. We need our great God to pour out His mercy and grace in this situation.”

Samantha Gobba

Samantha is a former WORLD correspondent.

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