FEMA inspects, documents damage to homes from Gatlinburg wildfire

GATLINBURG (WATE) – Six weeks have passed since wildfires ripped through Gatlinburg. Since day one, help has been pouring into the community with local, state and federal organizations setting up to provide assistance for every survivor.

FEMA inspected the scope of the damage at the Sweeney family’s home on Thursday.

“It was such a strong, special, little house,” said homeowner Stephanie Sweeney.

The family says they loved the home, the area, and want to stay. While they know that, there are many questions they don’t yet have the answers to which is why they reached out to FEMA for guidance.

“Certainly any help you get enables you to be able to think further,” said Sweeney.

How to apply for FEMA assistance

They’re one of about 1,000 people in Gatlinburg who have applied with FEMA and had an inspector come out.

“The big issue I want y’all to understand is that FEMA is not an insurance company. We’re not going to make this family whole. Our job is to get them on the road to recovery,” said Bettina Hutchings with FEMA.

To date, more than 300 people have been approved for financial assistance in Gatlinburg. A breakdown of the numbers shows when it comes to housing funds, FEMA has given out more than $2.3 million, for housing assistance $1.2 million, and then for families who needed help with cars and other needs, more than $1 million was provided.

“We ask everyone to apply whether they have insurance or not,” added Hutchings.

Weeks later, many out here are weighing big decisions while being thankful for a helping hand.

“You’re just never guaranteed what’s going to happen in a day. You’re just not. Every day and everything you have should just be cherished. Things can be replaced but they should be cherished,” said Sweeney.

While millions in financial assistance are being distributed, FEMA wants to remind survivors to use aid responsibly. Before receiving a check, a homeowner or renter will receive a letter with guidelines on how to use the money. Ultimately they’ll have to sign that document.

Funds can be used for rental assistance, reimbursement for lodging, repairs to structural or electrical elements of a home, as well as personal property including medical, dental, or child care expenses.

Officials with FEMA say if they discover someone has used aid irresponsibly and not followed guidelines, they can come in and recover every dollar.

“You need to utilize the funds that have been provided by FEMA to provide your family with a place to stay, to try and rebuild, and begin that rebuilding process. That along with all the other assistance offered, you can be back to where you were prior to the disaster pretty fast. If you misuse the funds or don’t use them responsibly, then not only could you still be in this situation, but it could just get worse,” said Hutchings.

The last day to apply for FEMA assistance is February 13.

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