Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: Fires and Visit to East TN

Posted on December 6, 2016

Now on a more somber note. A week ago last Wednesday on a mountaintop called the Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, someone spotted a fire and called the National Park Service about 5:20p.m. in the afternoon. I have been up Chimney Tops many times, more times when I was younger than when I have been older. But it's a peak with rocks at the top. We're not like the west where they have a lot of rocky mountains. We don't have many of them. We have 83 average inches of rainfall a year, unlike southern California or Phoenix, places like that where they get only a few inches a year. So we have almost rain forests, and when the fall comes, lots of leaves are on the ground.

But the fire started up on the Chimney Tops, and I can tell you that there wouldn't have been anyone within 100 miles who would have imagined that somehow the next Monday wind would have swept that fire into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, killing 14 people, injuring another 134, causing an evacuation of 14,000 people, wrecking lives and wrecking homes.

There have been some people wondering a little bit, well, how could this have happened? Look, we've had fires all over East Tennessee this year. We're not used to that, because we've had a drought for a long time.

I ask consent to put in the record following my remarks an article by Bob Hodge about Greg Ward of Sevier County. This is the county where Gatlinburg is. Greg Ward spent his 53 years roaming around the woods and waters of Sevier County, according to Bob Hodge, a
writer for the The Knoxville Sentinel. The long and short of it is those who know the woods and the waters of East Tennessee know this drought has been with us for a while. 

Trout stocking programs wouldn't work because the water was so low that the streams wouldn't handle the trout, and the water was too warm for them to survive. The creeks were flowing in some places at 10% of normal. We have maybe seen that once before in anyone's memory back in the 1970's, but for the last three months, there has been very little rain, and according to Bob Hodge's article, we've had a drought since 2015.

Mr. Alexander: On Friday, Governor Haslam of Tennessee, Senator Corker and I went to Gatlinburg, and the only thing I could think of to say to the assembled people there were two things: One was your character is measured not so much by how you handle things when things are going well, but how you handle adversity, and if that's the measure of character, the character of the people of Gatlinburg and Sevier County is through the roof because they're not complaining.

The mayor of Gatlinburg, Mike Werner, had his home burn down in 15 minutes. He was there at the press conference worried about other people, not himself.

Cindy Ogle, the city manager of Gatlinburg for a long time, had her home burn down. She was there, not complaining, worrying about the other people of Gatlinburg and Sevier County. Mike Werner's business was also burned down. He is staying in the apartment of a friend nearby. That story is happening over and over and over again in Sevier County.

There have been extraordinary gestures by people to help. At one point shortly after the fire started, there were 140 fire trucks from all over Tennessee, and more than 400 volunteers.

The fires just kept going and going because this wind came up on Monday night after the fire had already started ten miles away on the top of this rocky mountain, and a 90-mile an hour wind blew the fire somehow all the way into Gatlinburg. And the wind knocked down transformers and started other fires, and people were racing for their lives.

I mentioned on the floor there were stories of firefighters having to get back in their trucks to get away from the bears that were running toward them, escaping the fire, of people driving through fire to escape, of windshield wipers melting as they drove down the mountain. It was a terrifying experience.

In the west, they may be used to this. Nobody ever gets used to it, I guess, but we don't see that where we're from, with 83 inches of rain typically in a year.

So I salute the people of Sevier County and Gatlinburg for their courage and character and their compassion for one another. I know it's going to take a long time for many to get back on their feet. We're doing what we can to help. I salute the governor of Tennessee. He was there the next day. So were many of his agencies, working seamlessly together. We went back there with him, as I said, last Friday. We have arranged through the state for federal assistance which will pay for 75% of the cost of fighting the fires.

Then that same day, we went on down to some other counties in Tennessee which had experienced a tornado at about the same time. We went into McMinn County. No one was killed there, but several were hurt.

We went to Polk county where we talked to a lady named Mrs. Stoker who wasn't hurt but in the trailer next to where she lived, the trailer had been blown across the road and her daughter and the daughter's husband had been killed.

We talked to her for a while, and the governor and Senator Corker and I were very impressed with her. I doubted that we would have the strength she does. She said to us as we left, she says you fellows go on back up there and do your job and we'll take care of it here. I'm sure she will, but I'm awfully impressed with Mrs. Stoker.

And secondly, to thank all of those who have tried to help. One last example, in the McMinn County area, a young woman had a baby during the tornado. Her home was damaged. She went to the hospital. When she came back the next day, the neighbors had found another home for her. They had clean sheets and everything that she needed. So there are wonderful stories of a terrifying set of incidents. I wanted to come to the floor and say that we're proud of the people of Eastern Tennessee.

Then that same day, we went on down to some other counties in Tennessee which had experienced a tornado at about the same time. We went into McMinn County. No one was killed there, but several were hurt.

We went to Polk County where we talked to a lady named Mrs. Stoker who wasn't hurt, but in the trailer next to where she lived, the trailer had been blown across the road and her daughter and her daughter's husband had been killed.

We talked to her for a while, and the governor and Senator Corker and I were very impressed with her. I doubted that we would have the strength she does. She said to us as we left, “You fellows go on back up there and do your job and we'll take care of it here.” I'm sure she will, but I'm awfully impressed with Mrs. Stoker.

So I told the people of Sevier County that many, many senators had said something to me about the fire. Senator Feinstein called, for example, because of her experience in California. I'm here only to say those two things, first that the people of Sevier County and Gatlinburg and of the area where Polk County is and McMinn County is, if their character is measured by how they handle adversity, their character is over the top. And secondly, to thank all of those who have tried to help.

One last example, in the McMinn County area, a young woman had a baby during the tornado. Her home was damaged. She went to the hospital. When she came back the next day, the neighbors had found another home for her. They had clean sheets and everything that she needed. So there are wonderful stories that came out of a terrifying set of incidents. I wanted to come to the floor and say that we're proud of the people of Eastern Tennessee. 

So I told the people of Sevier County that many, many senators had said something to me about the fire. Senator Feinstein called, for example, because of her experience in California. I'm here only to say those two things, that the people of Sevier County and Gatlinburg and of the area where Polk County is and McMinn County is, if their character is measured by how they handle adversity, their character is over the top.