Wildfire Survivors seek answers, get happy talk

Betty BeanUncategorized

Members of the Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors group planned ahead for the first City Commission meeting after Resolution 939 took effect. So, evidently, did members of city government.

Resolution 939 requires anyone who wants to speak at commission meetings to submit their comments to the city manager five days in advance, along with the subject matter to be addressed. Speakers are given three minutes and may be ruled out of order by the mayor if they deviate from their announced topic. The commission can vote not to let applicants speak, or may rule them out of order for “attacking” city officials, or for being “disrespectful” or “uncivil.” A crowd was expected.

The meetings convene at 6 p.m., so the survivors group made plans to arrive early.

So, evidently, did city officials, and when the survivors started to arrive a city hall at 5:15, they found most of the seats already occupied. Known in the business as an altar call, this is Rule 1b in the bureaucrats’ handbook on shutting up troublemakers:

Outnumber them.

The meeting began with an evangelical flair: the pledge to the flag followed by an emotional prayer by a city employee that ended with an audience amen chorus and segued into a soliloquy by Mayor Mike Werner, who has been the focus of much of the survivors’ ire, particularly for his earlier remark that the disaster “changed our lives for the better.” Werner reminded the crowd that he, too, lost his home, and said the commission doesn’t mean to censor public comment, but simply wants to have “more productive meetings” with less dissent, which he referred to as “putting that junk out there that hurts working people.”

This speech didn’t impress the survivors’ group, several of whom jointly submitted a list of questions, along with others who turned in individual questions. All received short written answers, most of which were perfunctory (sometimes just the word “No”), some with an admonishment that the information sought was “personal.” Genie Brabham, a Hurricane Katrina survivor who relocated to Gatlinburg after losing her home in New Orleans, asked the commissioners if they agreed with Werner’s contention that people would have fared better the night of the wildfires had they used common sense.

The answer?

“Common sense should be used in every decision in life.”

Erik Cooper, a writer who commutes to Los Angeles for work and who led dozens of his neighbors down Ski Mountain on Nov. 28, had a list of technical questions, drawn from his background as a risk management and catastrophic claims specialist who worked the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York City and offered his services to Gatlinburg neighbors who needed help dealing with insurance companies.

Cooper also asked if the commissioners were aware that fire chief Greg Miller and public information officer Marci Claude went on TV at 5 p.m. the day of the wildfires and informed the public that Gatlinburg was “open for business.” The answer was that Miller spoke at 4:30 p.m. and said there were no fires in the city limits. “This statement was based on information from (the national park) “as well as current conditions.”

Once the comments were done, the meeting was relatively brief and ended with vice mayor Mike McCown praising the mayor, saying “You nailed it!” Applause ensued.

‘Chicken Little’ rescues neighbors

Erik Cooper

Nearly eight months ago, Erik Cooper was having a quiet evening at his Ski Mountain home when he got a call from a friend who said he’d heard that the mountain was on fire. Cooper called the Gatlinburg Police Department to ask if an evacuation was underway and the dispatcher put him on hold, and then came back with some alarming news:

“Yes, the mountain’s on fire. You have to get out.”

Cooper made a quick call to his parents in Florida (they own a neighboring Ski Mountain house where they spend half the year), threw an armload of belongings into his car and started down the mountain.

Then he noticed something.

“I looked at the cabins around me and realized I was the only one leaving. Nobody was running but me.”

At that point, he made a quick decision:

“I turned into Chicken Little, telling everybody the sky was falling. I went from cabin to condo, blowing my horn, screaming, even breaking windows with my Mag Lite flashlight. They probably thought I was drunk, but I didn’t care what they thought as long as I got their attention and got them out. …”

By the time he was done, he was leading a convoy of some 40 vehicles down the mountain, surrounded by flames, driving through fire. He remembers seeing cars stopping at parkway traffic lights. He drove to Cosby, then turned around and went to MIX 05.5’s studio in Kodak and banged on the door until he rousted DJ Jay Adams, who put him on the air. They blasted out warnings for about an hour until the high winds blew the transmitter tower down. Cooper spent the night in a Pigeon Forge hotel room, expecting to learn that his houses were gone.

But they survived the capricious flames, which took so much from his neighbors, leaving Cooper to deal with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I asked God, after the fires, why did he save me and save these houses? The only thing I could think of was I helped rescue people. Now, I have a different answer: Maybe it was for a higher purpose – to spend time telling this story and participating in government reform.”

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