Soot Swept Up: Business Unharmed by Wildfires Set to Reopen

A week ago on Monday, hurricane-force winds whipped up fires that killed 14 people and damaged or destroyed more than 1,750 buildings in the Great Smoky Mountains tourist region

Chirping and beeping filled the air as Marion Paul fired up her Gatlinburg video arcade Monday, the first time she's seen her business since deadly wildfires set much of the city ablaze a week ago. Sooty floors needed dusting. Spoiled food had to be tossed. Otherwise, she was set to reopen. 

While several Gatlinburg areas resembled a war zone, the main business drag in this popular Tennessee tourist site was spared by the fast-moving flames. 

A week ago on Monday, hurricane-force winds whipped up fires that killed 14 people and damaged or destroyed more than 1,750 buildings in the Great Smoky Mountains tourist region, carving a selective path that turned some buildings to rubble and at times left their neighbors unharmed. 

As they gear up for Gatlinburg to reopen to the public on Friday morning, some businesses that were largely untouched are eager for a quick reopening in a crucial holiday season. Others that weren't as lucky have begun planning to rebuild. 

"I mean, it's just a miracle because all of the businesses here (downtown), from what I can see, are saved," said Paul, owner of Fannie Farkle's arcade. "It's been a week today. But we're lucky to have our lives."

But just a short distance away from the downtown area, white smoke still billowed Monday from the scrap pile that remained of the Alamo Steakhouse in Gatlinburg. 

Kelly Johnson, who owns the restaurant with her father and her husband, said she hopes to have the restaurant rebuilt by early 2018. The 35 employees, including four who lost their homes, will continue getting paid for up to a year. 

"The reality is that we would have had nothing without them in the first place, so I really feel like it's the least we can do," Johnson said. 

Johnson's family owns nine other restaurants in the area and another one is being built. None of the others were damaged, except for having to close temporarily and throw out food. The challenge for the region, she said, is overcoming misconceptions that Gatlinburg was destroyed. 

"Come visit, come visit, come visit, come visit, come visit - those are my five biggest points," Johnson said. "I think if people understood that what we want is for them to come here and have a good time, to spend their money like that, that's really what everybody here needs." 

The Alamo Steakhouse location in Pigeon Forge, for example, sat mostly empty for lunch Monday. That area was largely unscathed by the fires and is open for business. 

Dollywood, the Pigeon Forge amusement park named after country star and native Dolly Parton, has been open since Friday and the park is pleased with attendance so far, said spokesman Pete Owen. In the park's holiday show season, the next three weeks are always important, but will be even more so this year to help out the region, Owen said. 

Parton is raising money for the victims and her Dollywood Foundation is providing $1,000 a month to all of those families who lost their homes in the fires for six months. 

Also this weekend, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said a mass text message telling people to evacuate was never sent. TEMA says the local command post requested the message at 8:30 p.m. last Monday, but communication between agencies was lost because of disabled phone, internet and electrical services. 

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said officials are now looking into what happened and how to make sure everyone in the future gets the notification they need. Asked if the evacuation order came too late, Haslam said he didn't know the answer to that.

"I wasn't at their command center, so I don't know how they made those decisions, but this was a pretty unprecedented storm, and a lot of things had to come together in the wrong way to make this happen," Haslam said. 

The National Weather Service said wind gusts could reach 40 mph in eastern Tennessee overnight Monday into Tuesday, including Gatlinburg. Rains are expected to continue overnight through Tuesday.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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