Diocese of Knoxville distributes nearly $369,000 to assist victims of the Gatlinburg fires
By Bill Brewer
Karla Amador now can breathe a deep sigh of relief, something she struggled to do on Nov. 28, 2016, and in the days and weeks following the now-historic date.
Nearly nine months after the Gatlinburg wildfires reduced everything her family owned to ashes, Mrs. Amador and her husband, José Roberto Figueroa, and their son, Brayan, are piecing together their lives with the aid of the generous assistance they have received from their Sevier County neighbors, including St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg and the Diocese of Knoxville.
Within hours of the devastating fires that killed 14 people, injured some 150 others, and destroyed or damaged more than 1,700 structures on Nov. 28, the diocese mobilized a relief effort to get immediate aid to individuals and families in need, and then launched a fundraising campaign to provide financial assistance to parishioners in the direst of circumstances.
José, Karla, and Brayan were among more than 20 affected families who contacted St. Mary and the diocese for assistance. They were one of eight St. Mary families who lost everything when fire swept through their apartment complex in Gatlinburg about 10 minutes after they were forced to evacuate the resort town.
Bishop Richard F. Stika designated Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and a vicar general for the diocese, and Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, pastor of St. Mary, as leaders of the diocesan relief effort.
Bishop Stika said the diocese received nearly $369,000 from scores of donors over a six-month period to help diocesan victims of the wildfires. St. Mary received and distributed more than $138,000 in additional donations.
Much of what was donated directly to St. Mary was distributed immediately after the fires and used for clothing, food, and other necessities for affected parishioners. A parish Fire Relief Fund Committee was then formed to determine the best way to distribute the funds — both parish and diocesan — that continued to flow in.
Karla, José, and Brayan were among eight families who received $1,000 immediately after the fires because they lost everything they owned.
They also were among 24 families who applied for relief and received funds to help put their household back together. The parish solicited parishioners who suffered losses and asked them to turn in information about what their losses were. The committee identified the families, reviewed their situations, and placed them in one of three categories: homeowners who lost their homes and belongings; families who lost their rental housing, household items, and belongings; and people who lost some items or who were affected by closed businesses.
The diocese’s vision was to respond immediately after the fires and then to offer a more long-term response to assist the recovery of those impacted, according to Father Boettner. The Diocese of Knoxville worked with St. Mary to identify victims and assess their needs. Father Boettner said all victims who requested assistance received grants.
“The committee knew there wasn’t a way to cover every loss. Rather than try to focus on replacing everything that was lost, they tried to give a gift out of love to folks who were harmed by the fires based on what was available,” Father Boettner said. “Everyone who applied was helped. We even went to families that we knew had losses that had not applied and double-checked with them to make sure they did not want to apply.”
“In the Bible, the good Samaritan responded to someone in need with love. We do likewise,” he added.
Eight homeowners whose houses burned down were given $20,000 each, while 10 families that rented and lost everything were given $14,000 each. Six other families that suffered partial, sustainable losses received $6,000 each. The St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, a mobile medical clinic that provides free medical care to the uninsured and underinsured across East Tennessee and which initiated service to patients in the Gatlinburg area after the fires, will be awarded approximately $11,000.
As part of the diocesan effort, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee distributed $21,945 to stricken families for home repairs, rent assistance, hospital bills, and various household expenses.
“For the folks who lost everything, the $20,000 they are getting will not cover the entire cost of rebuilding. These funds will allow them to close the gap between what insurance will pay for and what the actual loss is, or they can apply the money toward their mortgage so they can rebuild,” Father Boettner noted.
“For the folks in apartments, $14,000 is going to allow you to replace some of your furniture and items for your kitchen and bedrooms.”
He said for those who did not sustain total losses, the $6,000 will let them repair or replace some of the personal property damaged in the fires or recoup personal expenses related to the fires.
Bishop Stika said the outpouring of prayers and assistance following the devastating fires reflects the love and concern of the East Tennessee faith community and beyond for the residents of Sevier County.
“You never really understand devastation until you see it with your own eyes,” Bishop Stika said, recalling the images of structures burned to the ground while other buildings next door were untouched — a common scene around the Gatlinburg area.
“When I put out the call across the diocese, people were very generous. We knew there was going to be a great need,” Bishop Stika said. “It’s neighbor helping neighbor. It’s like I always say, we do together what we can’t do by ourselves.
The universal Church
Karla, José, and Brayan are grateful so many people responded to Bishop Stika’s appeal for prayers and assistance.
“The Church has helped us in many different ways, especially in a spiritual way, but also in a material way. It helped us not only with money, but with clothes and non-perishable food. Father Antony was so thoughtful that he got an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that we now have in our house that is blessing us every day,” Mrs. Amador said.
“Since two days after the fire, we have felt the moral and spiritual help from the Church, since the day Father Antony told us that Father David (Boettner) was coming from Knoxville. They distributed gift cards to buy clothes. Especially in my case, I needed women’s clothes. I had none. That was very meaningful,” she added. “We cannot deny that without the Church’s help, we would be in a much worse situation.”
Karla, José, and Brayan are thankful they weren’t hurt or killed, and their prayers are with those who lost loved ones. But they lost everything else, and they were homeless from Nov. 28 through February. In addition to being homeless, Mr. Figueroa was out of work for days. He works two jobs to provide for his family, and those employers were forced to shut down when the city of Gatlinburg closed.
“Everything in our apartment burned. We didn’t have the opportunity to save anything else except for the car,” Mr. Figueroa said. “We were scared. We’ve lived in Gatlinburg for nine years, and we have never experienced anything like that.”
Mr. Figueroa recalled staying with a friend the night of the fires and then staying in a hotel for free for several nights. The family then found shelter in a camper and then with other friends until they found another apartment to rent on a more permanent basis.
While they were homeless, Father Punnackal was able to get assistance to them from donations to St. Mary Church so they could buy basic necessities. They also received assistance from the Dollywood Foundation.
“We thank God, the Church, and all the people, and the Dollywood Foundation, which helped us so much. When we were homeless, we wondered who is going to help us. We didn’t know where to go. The Church has really helped us a lot. Thank you to all the people who gave money to the Church,” Mr. Figueroa said, adding that St. Mary and the diocese provided them with money on four occasions.
He said it was critical to have cash on hand for food and medicine while he was out of work. The medicine was for his wife, whose asthma was triggered by the fires and worsened as they sought shelter.
“On the day of the fires, at 7 a.m. when Brayan went to school, I was already breathing smoke. The environment looked darker and yellowish. All day long we were smelling that until we were evacuated. I am asthmatic and that got much worse,” Mrs. Amador said, pointing out that their apartment building caught fire only moments after they vacated it and that they have friends whose residences were on fire as they fled.
“When I left our home, I thought it was the end of the world,” she said, noting the high winds, the orangey sky, the thick smoke, and the burning smell.
“I really thought that was going to be the end. In the days after the fire burned down our apartment and all our belongings, I was very depressed and I cried a lot. I wondered how we were going to get back on our feet. It wasn’t easy to realize that we had nothing. I worried how we were going to buy food and clothes after we worked so hard to get those things.”
She said it is especially hard to lose so many family photos, mementos, and personal belongings.
The dangerous situation also was traumatic for Brayan, who was first evacuated from his school and then his apartment.
“You could see the sun that day, but it was like orange Jello. It was like an eclipse. My dad picked me up and my mom was so worried. Also, she was coughing because of all the smoke,” said Brayan, who is a seventh-grader.
After overcoming the frightening situation of evacuating his home and the town in which he lives, Brayan said he relived it the following week when they were allowed to return to their residence.
“The next week, they opened Gatlinburg and we were able to go back to our apartment. When I saw it I started crying. Everything was burned to the ground. It didn’t look like apartments. That was an experience I will never forget. But things are getting better now,” he said.
They feel their prayers are being answered when, with Father Punnackal’s assistance, they were able to find a new residence in February, and then when Father Boettner presented them with a check for $14,000 in June. Mrs. Amador said they were overjoyed by Father Boettner’s generous visit.
“We don’t have family here. Our family actually is our church community. So, in our case, we received help from church parishioners, our friends who opened their homes for us so we could stay with them for long periods of time,” Mrs. Amador said.
“All the things we have gone through are difficult to assimilate. But I do believe that everything happens because God allows it to happen and because He has a purpose, to let us see the almighty hand of God in our lives amid difficulties. We cannot say God wasn’t with us. He was with us,” Mrs. Amador said.
“And we are so grateful and thankful to the Catholic Church because we know the Catholic Church is the universal Church, especially the Catholic Church here in our diocese. Since we came to the United States, we have seen the Catholic Church standing with us. We do feel its great support, and we definitely feel God’s strength working through the community and in us,” she added.