A year ago this week, massive wildfires swept through the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. In the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, thousands of homes and cabins were lost.
Some of the rebound happened quickly. At the Westgate Resort in Gatlinburg, the fires ravaged its property: 70 of the 90 buildings were destroyed. And as the largest employer in the county, they knew they needed to get employees back to work as soon as possible. So within three days, the resort had construction crews on site to remove debris, said Mark Waltrip, Westgate's chief operating officer. Not a single employee was laid off.
"It's been a very aggressive rebuilding process," Waltrip said.
A year later, the resort has rebuilt 80 percent of what was lost and have hundreds more units under construction.
At Stony Brook Cabins, a vacation rental company, a quarter of the buildings were burned. It was devastating for owner Pam Hill. But today, they're the busiest they’ve ever been.
"It took a few months for word to get out because so many people thought that Gatlinburg was gone," Hill said. "By June we started to see the numbers really increasing and huge amounts of people coming."
Marci Claud, in Gatlinburg's office of tourism, said there has been a drop in tax revenue from so many lost structures, but the number of tourists is holding steady. The city built three new hotels last year and three more are slated to open this year. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park averaged more than 11 million visitors in 2016, more than any other national park, and Claude said it's on track to hit that number this year.
This is a place where families have vacationed for generations, Hill says, and that means a loyal customer base.
"All those people with all those memories, when they heard Gatlinburg was in trouble, they wanted to come," she said. "And the best way to support Gatlinburg is by coming."