Let me share a touching story of a Gatlinburg Firestorm victim. On Monday, Brady Cody and I participated in a free legal clinic for victims/survivors of the Gatlinburg firestorm (that’s what it is known as to locals – a “firestorm”). We counseled Jim McElhaney, a retired Air Force Sr. Loadmaster. Jim and his wife lived in Chalet Village, with a beautiful view of LeConte. In the late afternoon of November 28, high winds swept massive waves of flames up Ski Mountain Road, engulfing the McElhaney’s chalet in a ball of fire. The fire came on so suddenly that all they could do was grab their keys and run to their small SUV. The smoke was so dense; they could not see to drive. The road was blocked by downed trees. So they sat in their car, and watched their chalet burn to the ground. Jim said they were sure they would not survive. They sat in the car for 8 hours. The pictures Brady is holding were taken during their ordeal, and the morning after. The McElhaneys lost everything. All they were able to salvage was two Christmas ornaments.
The McElhaneys were insured, but have been offered only a small fraction of the replacement cost of their home. Obtaining a fair settlement will require a contested arbitration process. They’ve been offered a fraction of their personal property claim because they’ve struggled, through grief and stress, to create an inventory of their belongings. Jim was confused, as are most people, by the arcane of terms of his insurance policy. At several points in our session, he seemed close to tears. He was hospitalized for a week after the fire due to smoke inhalation, and he has struggled to keep his wife’s spirits up.
We’ve committed to help the McElhaneys through their insurance claim process. We met with several others, including low-income individuals on the brink of eviction due to losing their job because the business where they worked burned down. We counseled with a policeman who let his deck burn down in order to rescue neighbors instead.
There remains a great deal of need, including legal aid need, among so many in the Gatlinburg area. They are proud people who were independent citizens of the community, and their lives have bene shattered.
Please keep these fine people in your thoughts and prayers.