There will be no pictures of the shelter with this post. Words should be sufficient. Words, dripping with fear. Thankfulness. Faith. Exhaustion. Praise. Love.
I could maneuver the shelter upon my arrival, primarily because the smokers were outside mingling with other shell-shocked Tennessee residents, visitors, volunteers, press, and politicians who are tasked with several press conferences a day. They had already checked in, grabbed a bite, used the facilities and were trying to process the tragedy.
Greeted by a vest-wearing Red-Cross volunteer, I escorted my 82-year-old Father- In- Law to the “residents” section, a roped off area designated for those who would spending one night, or several. Souls who either had no home for the night, feared the worst, or who had received confirmation that their home had been reduced to ash. Ash that had blown from atop of old Smoky through the town of Gatlinburg at a rapid clip of 87 miles per hour.
My Father-in-Law was shaken, couldn’t remember his address. The dogs were still in the house, or so I had been told. His wife’s dogs. His wife whom we buried only a couple months ago. There was no warning, no evacuation notice, just a rap on the door, and an officer who grabbed him by the elbow and placed him in the back of the patrol car.
Flames were at the property line.
Flames were down the driveway.
Flames were on both sides of the main road.
Flames. Flames and wind that sounds like the ravenous demons from hell were walking the earth seeking whatever they could devour.
This video, allows you to listen to the fire. Listen to the wind. Listen to the screams of Mother Nature in what can only be defined as The Firestorm of the Century.
I watched this in the wee hours Monday morning, and at 23.34 minutes something came into view that caused me to fall on the floor . . . the image of the City’s Christmas decorations outside my Father-In-Law’s community.
So it was in the late night and early morning hours that I fell to my face with the “Mustard Seed” prayer. “Lord, your word says that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can say to the mountain, ‘move’ and it will obey. Well Lord, a mountain of fire is coming. It is here, at the door of my Father-in-Law’s house. God all I can say is help. Move that mountain from us. In the precious name of Jesus The Christ.”
We were not lucky, we were blessed. But this isn’t a post about me, this is a post about how we come together when the world and nature knocks us to our knees. Because sometimes you must lose all in order to find yourself.
We registered at the shelter and I placed my name on the contact sheet for the Humane Society who was still seeking volunteers to go door-to-door searching for pets. My Father-in-Law’s pets were inside, in a crate, ready to go, but the evacuation had made pet-taking impossible. Complicating the Humane Society’s ability to search, looters had hit downtown Gatlinburg and, as a result of that evil act, the National Guard arrived locked, loaded, and serious about protecting homes and business owners. Curfew from 6am-6pm. As an aside, watching Black Hawk helicopters land and witnessing National Guard travel past made us feel scared, protected, and proud to live in a country where the military keeps us safe. So many emotions, so much to process. We are a military family, and God Bless everyone wearing a uniform and badge.
I settled my Father-in-Law in front of the television with a banana and a cup of coffee then set out to find the ladies room but not before taking in the site before me. It wasn’t just the Red Cross at the Rocky Top Sports Center, churches were holed up in a small area distributing toiletries. Rocky Top Staff kept the bathrooms pristine, even changed the welcome mats as I watched. Hot meals, continually. Volunteers almost arguing to help.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
“Would you prefer tea?” another asked.
“I’ll make it,” they responded in unison in a way that begged, please let me help you. Please understand that this simple cup of tea or coffee is so full of love the container is about to overflow.
Laundry services: “Leave your laundry with me.”
“No me. . . I’ll do it.”
“Let me get this for you.”
“What do you need?”
Love. Love. Love. I have never witnessed so much love.
Upstairs were rooms piled with clothing, shoes, diapers. The only thing missing were trash bags or some type of container with which to transport what you collected. The moment someone asked for a trash bag, a volunteer lit out on foot snappy quick.
Your need, their command.
Books. Puzzles. Word searches. Bags of popcorn (a brilliant donation as children settled in with books and puzzles and nibbled on popcorn).
Fruit was scarce, and quickly disappeared when someone placed a bunch of bananas on the table. The process caused me to evaluate previous in-kind donations and what I would contribute in the future. Chocolate, had there been any would have caused a near riot. Simple comforts: socks, lovies for scared children, hugs. Goodness, the hugs I gave (but actually received instead).
After hours of begging everyone I met with a badge, and planning to walk in with four very-tall athletic young men, I found someone who would access the home and retrieve the dogs that had been alone for 4 days. After reuniting the canines with my father-in-law, we then returned to the shelter and felt it pulse with life. Two hundred souls had ballooned to over a thousand who stood elbow to elbow, every single one needing love.
Needing love more than anything else on the earth. Just one second of love . . . first, before you tell them Everything’s going to be alright.
Heroes, there are many in #Gatlinburg right now. Those who rescue dogs, fight over who serves coffee, fly helicopters, strap a helmet to their head and stand guard over a town I love. Children who are pulling pennies together to adopt a family who lost everything. Strangers searching the woods for someone’s pet. Blood donors. Fruit donors. Sock donors. This is who we were created to be.
This my darlings, this is who we were created to be, the hands and feet of Jesus that are supposed to love every single day, not just after the fires of hell rain down at 87 miles an hour.The slogan #SmokiesStrong is on the fingertips of many, but we were called to be strong long before now.
Renea Winchester is an author, a gardener, and a giver of hugs. This month she is donating the proceeds from the sale of her short story– A Hardscrabble Christmas – to the Dollywood Foundation who has pledged to support those displaced by the #Chimney2Fires.