Year of recovery: after wildfires, residents dealing with pollution, questions

Year of recovery: after wildfires, residents dealing with pollution, questions

26 March 2017

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USA —  With the charred remains of her bed-and-breakfast finally cleared, and her future in limbo, Susan Stocks thought she might plant a vegetable garden this summer on her vacant property on West Holly Ridge Road above downtown Gatlinburg.

Then she attended a March 14 Gatlinburg City Commission meeting where a Nashville-based hazardous materials expert working in the area since December warned of continuing levels of lead, asbestos and other pollutants in the soil and groundwater. He urged the commission to pass an ordinance to make insurers clean up the contaminants.

“Who wants a tomato grown in that?” said Stocks, who said twice recently her path from her apartment to work has been blocked by rockslides – a danger another expert at the meeting warned of. “Who’s addressing these issues?”

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That meeting allotted time for Gatlinburg residents to speak to the commission about post-fire concerns and experiences. Stocks didn’t speak at the meeting; she came to watch and listen.

And as her neighbors, many quite emotional, told of the trauma visited upon them by the fires and the city’s handling of later issues, “the council folks were just stone-faced,” she said. “They didn’t seem to really — it didn’t seem to affect them. They showed no empathy.”

To Stocks, unanswered questions and unassigned blame have proven just as toxic as the pollutants left behind in burned ruins. A longtime Florida resident, she said she’d lived through hurricanes, which can result in similar losses and lessons learned for future preparation.

“The big difference here is the lack of people coming forward and just saying, ‘Hey, you know, we messed up,’” she said.

Last week, she hung a “For Sale” banner across the stone wall that’s all that’s left standing of the Tudor Inn. She and husband Glenn decided not to rebuild, reasoning that it would take years for a new bed-and-breakfast to become as profitable as the historic inn they bought and lovingly renovated five years ago — especially when tourists might, at least temporarily, be deterred by destruction and construction.

The couple also took a vacation rental apartment they own off the market, opting instead to rent it to local residents who’d lost their home.

“There’s so many homeless people up here right now,” she said.

Just recently, workers finished repairing the roof on the apartment building the Stockses co-own and live in, also damaged during the fire.

“It took three months for half a roof,” Stocks said. “Can you imagine what it would take to build a building?”

She hopes the city will consider using some now-vacant property to “give back” to the residents – a park, a concert venue, something aimed at locals at least as much as at tourists.

As Glenn Stocks returned to work in medical imaging, his field before they bought the inn, Stocks, an accountant has been working long days at her job for a local entertainment company. On days she’s not at work, she wakes up with a list of 30 or more tasks involved with filing various tax forms, dealing with insurance and looking toward the future – such as deciding what cities her resume will go to.

“It’s sad, it’s heartbreaking to be at this point in your life, starting over,” she said. “Where do you go, what do you do?”

But she’s thankful she’s had the experience before of leaving everything to come to a new place, of starting a new venture — as she did in 2013, when she left her Florida home to try her hand in the hospitality industry.

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