Obama Declares Tennessee Wildfires a Disaster Worthy of Federal Help

by | December 16, 2016

By Travis Dorman

President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration Thursday, ordering federal funds be made available to victims of the fires that killed 14 and damaged or destroyed more than 2,400 structures in Gatlinburg and the surrounding Sevier County communities.

Sevier County residents and business owners who sustained losses from wildfires during the period of Nov. 28 to Dec. 9 are eligible to receive federal funds, according to a news release from the White House. Officials have estimated the fires caused around $500 million in damages.

"This deadly wildfire required a coordinated response from many individuals and organizations," Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said in a statement. "The outpouring of care, relief and support from around the world for Sevier County and its people has been extraordinary. This assistance from the federal government will help relieve some of the financial burden of this disaster on Tennesseans and Sevier County."

In Haslam's request of President Obama on Dec. 9, the Governor asked for the disaster declaration to include four additional counties: Coffee, McMinn, Polk and Sequatchie, according to a Tennessee Emergency Management Agency news release. These areas were ravaged by severe storms and tornados on Nov. 29, just one day after wildfires stoked by hurricane-force winds raced through Sevier County.

President Obama's initial disaster declaration did not include these counties, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they are still being considered.

"Nothing has been declined," said Mary Hudak, a spokeswoman for FEMA's southeast region. "Those are still under consideration, and we're still gathering additional information so we can make a determination on those counties."

Financial assistance for Sevier County residents can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help people recover from the fires, according to the White House release.

"We want to make sure that those people that lost their homes, their primary residences, transportation, business, any of those things that affect their primary life and lifestyle -- they are the folks that should be applying for assistance," Hudak said.

Sevier County residents who meet these qualifications can apply for funds by visiting FEMA's disaster assistance website or by calling 800-621-FEMA, or 800-462-7585 for the hearing and speech impaired. Registration begins on Friday. The telephone numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day until further notice.

After the registration process, the applications are sent to "verifiers" who meet with residents and business owners to verify the damages, Hudak said. The verifiers then provide FEMA with that information, and the organization makes decisions on a case-by-case basis.

"We do not make people whole," Hudak said. "We provide initial assistance to make sure they can find a safe place to live and have essential items to begin the recovery process."

Funding is also available to state and local governments and certain nonprofit organizations for emergency work in Sevier County.

Statewide measures to reduce the impact of future disasters may be funded under the president's declaration. These projects are typically identified by local governments, then forwarded to the state who makes decisions on how to allocate the limited funds, Hudak said.

"There may be fire breaks that could be implemented," she said. "It could be different kinds of fire plans, communication plans, things to address individuals to be better prepared, to better understand the fire risk and threat."

(c)2016 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)