GATLINBURG (WATE) – You can still smell the smoke in Gatlinburg, and though it’s been three months since the wildfires, it still feels like yesterday for many survivors.
“It got to the point where I started suffering from depression, anxiety and panic,” Judith Floyd said.
Floyd is a wildfire survivor struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The memories from that traumatic November night left her with grief and anger, even triggering nightmares and flashbacks.
“It was an inferno at the end of the street,” she said. “There were buildings completely engulfed. There was fire coming out of the sewer. Trees down, lines down, fire in the road.”
When fire circled her Gatlinburg home, Floyd had just minutes to escape with her daughter and pets. She drove through flames to escape the dangerous scene, taking her five hours to get to safety in Pigeon Forge. When she returned to town days later, she was relieved to find her property still intact.
Others, like George and Susan O’Leary, were not so lucky. Their home and all of their belongings burned to the ground.
“There were a lot of days where you just cried all day long,” Susan O’Leary said. “We couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep.”
Psychiatrist Dr. John Kupfner said it’s fairly common for wildfire victims to battle post-traumatic stress.
“These people didn’t ask for this,” Dr. Kupfner said. “They were tucking their children into bed and all of a sudden they were at risk of dying. And then they had to face a real uncertain decision: do I try to evacuate or do I stay here, and does that decision end up killing me and my family? That’s the kind of pressure people weren’t ready and didn’t ask for.”
The trauma from that fall night haunts them months later.
“You get very scared. You get depressed. You get panicky and have high anxiety,” Floyd said. “I’m very shaky all the time. If I look out and it was smoky from the fog and the mountains, I’d automatically assume fire. I’m always afraid I’m going to come back to my house burned to the ground. I’m neurotic about unplugging things. It’s turned me into a very paranoid person.”
Many survivors report feelings of restlessness and trouble sleeping.
“There are lots of moments where you just can’t sleep where you just can’t turn your brain off sometimes thinking about what’s gone,” Susan O’Leary said.
The smell of burned trees and the images of rubble serve as daily reminders of what was lost.
“It still feels like it just happened,” George O’Leary said. “It absolutely feels like it was just yesterday. It’s still fresh in our mind. I can still smell the smoke.”
These reminders make it hard to move past the trauma forever ingrained in their memory.
“Everybody needs to talk about it,” Dr. Kupfner said. “We can’t ignore that this happened. If you went through something horrible, it is okay to ask people ‘were you affected by the fires?’ and let them tell their stories. The more we talk about this individually and as a community, that helps everyone heal.”
He said for many survivors the healing process is just beginning.
“It’s not over,” Susan O’Leary said. “There’s no normal right now. You just make it through each day.”
If you or a loved one is experiencing post-traumatic stress, there is help out there. The Red Cross is offering mental health services to wildfire survivors to help people move forward. Crisis counseling is also available through the Tennessee Recovery Project. The organization can be reached at (865) 255-6716.
For other resources available, wildfire survivors are urged to call the Disaster Distress helpline at 800-985-5990 or the Mobile Crisis Unit at 865-539-2409.
If post-traumatic stress symptoms continue past six months, mental health experts advise you to seek professional help for PTSD.