Preparedness & Recovery

Gatlinburg Victims Raw as Pollution, Erosion Threaten City

'What does Gatlinburg plan to do to prevent emergency mistakes they made with this disaster?'

by Travis Dorman, Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn. / March 15, 2017

(TNS) - Water pollution and mudslides could be the next major problems facing Gatlinburg three and a half months after a deadly firestorm swept through the city, according to two experts who spoke during the emotional public forum portion of a City Commission meeting Tuesday evening.

Gatlinburg residents who suffered losses in the Nov. 28 fire that killed 14 people and destroyed more than 2,000 structures filled the small City Hall meeting room and streamed out into the hallway.

Resident after resident stood before Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, Vice Mayor Mark McCown, Commissioner Don Smith and City Manager Cindy Ogle and leveled questions about authorities’ failure to evacuate the tourist town and the city’s plan to avoid another tragedy in the future.

"What does Gatlinburg plan to do to prevent emergency mistakes they made with this disaster?" asked Chris Dunaway, who said he thought about committing suicide when he learned his cabin had burned down.

“I want to know why, maybe you can’t answer, but the Park Service, how someone can be so ignorant in a drought of 130 days to allow a fire to continue knowing 5 days ahead of time that these winds were coming in?” questioned Darlene Verito, adding she suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and can't cook for her family because "the coils on the stove turn red and I see fire."

The authorities listened to their stories, questions and concerns, but offered no answers during the stringent listening session.

Matt Church, director of hazmat services for the Nashville-based company Premier Protective Services, Inc., warned authorities of the decreasing water quality in the area. The company has been working in Gatlinburg since Dec. 1, according to Church.

“The fires are out, the emotions are still here, and the long-term effects on the water quality is near,” he said. “The soot and ash on the properties that are left unattended is detrimental.”

Church said his company has found high levels of contaminants in several areas including Baskins Creek, Roaring Fork and Little Pigeon River.

“When I say contaminants, if the property’s sitting there 104 days post-loss, the levels of lead, asbestos and everything else is going into the water."

Church said, “If the pollution’s being discharged on the property, there’s insurance for that,” and urged the city to pass an ordinance requiring insurance companies to clean up the pollutants.

Erik Cooper of Acuity Risk Consultants spoke after Church and said dead trees on Ski Mountain above Ripley's Aquarium and "the unstabilization of the slope" from incinerated undergrowth may cause mudslides if the area receives substantial rainfall.

Cooper said the process of hydroseeding — distributing plant seeds in a stream of water — has thus far been done incorrectly "because they’re only spraying what they can reach from the road" whereas "they need to spray from a higher elevation."

Cooper also advised workers cut trees at higher elevations "to keep that weight from bringing down the rest of the mountain."

"I would hate for that to be your next catastrophe."

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©2017 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)

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