Gatlinburg couple not ready to return after fires

GATLINBURG (WATE) – Hundreds of people were displaced by the devastating fires in Gatlinburg last November, among them a couple who lived there for 30 years.

The November wildfire destroyed Joe and Cathy Waggoner’s four-bedroom, three-story mountain home. Their new house is smaller, but everything in it and everything they wear is brand new.

“Every stitch of clothing is new, every pair of shoes, everything is new  That is just what happens when you don’t have anything, you have to start over,” said Joe Waggoner.

Only a few things survived the firestorm, like a special teacup from Japan given to them by friends years ago.

“The most amazing part of this was this piece – actually a Christmas ornament – and that is blown glass,” said Joe Waggoner.

The delicate glass survived in one piece.

The Waggoners have not yet started to rebuild and there is a lot of clean up left. Joe Waggoner says the process is very slow.

Previous story: Gatlinburg veteran, wife begin rebuilding lives after losing home to fire

“I talked to two builders who I would trust and they said we might get to it by this fall or winter. And, living hand-to-mouth that length of time wasn’t in our plan at all,” he said with a smile.

WATE 6 On Your Side tagged along in December when the Waggoners went shopping to replace items destroyed in the fire. Cathy Waggoner got new glasses and they needed socks. They only got out with the clothes on their backs.

They narrowly escaped from their burning home on November 28. The road down the mountain was blocked when two men suddenly appeared.

“Our guardian angels who fell out of the sky. There was a huge tree across the road and there was not way we were going to cross that tree. They jumped out of the Jeep with a chainsaw and start sawing this big tree,” said Cathy Waggoner.

“I feel comfortable that if we had stayed in our home 15 more minutes, we might not have ever got out, period,” said Joe Waggoner.

The Waggoners’ dog Josh is adjusting fine to his new surroundings. A lesson the couple learned from the fire is that they were under-insured.The cost of replacing their structure was covered, but not the full cost of belongings inside the house.

“Either take still pictures or moving pictures of all of their possessions, literally. Go through the house and open drawers, etc. So, you have proof of what all you had and what all you’ve lost,” said Joe Waggoner.

Joe Waggoner believes that county, city, and federal officials over the last six months have been unfairly criticized for their handling of the disaster.

“No one expected the wind to be like it was. So, it’s hard for me to point the finger at someone and say they should have done this,” he said.

While nature has provided new growth around their mountain home, Joe Waggoner says if they rebuild, the new structure would be a lot smaller.

The couple is especially grateful to the Dollywood Foundation. They say the $1,000 check per month and the final check for $5,000 has made the transition a lot easier.

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