In the aftermath of the November 2016 wildfires that destroyed 1,300 homes and left the community of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in emotional and economic crisis, the Dollywood Foundation launched the My People Fund to help. The fund provided families who had lost their homes with $1,000 a month for six months and a final gift of $5,000 in May 2017.
What was the overall impact of that relief effort, and how is the affected population faring nearly a year and a half later?
Working closely with the My People Fund, Professor Stacia West and others in UT’s College of Social Work have gathered information from a sample of My People Fund recipients. Participants were asked to respond to questionnaires in April 2017 and again in December 2017.
The research found that cash transfers, compared to specific donations, may be an important and underutilized approach to recovery following a natural disaster.
Results from the survey shed more light on that finding by determining “if and to what extent recipients of the My People Fund disbursements experienced positive impacts in their social, emotional, physical, and financial lives,” said West.
The surveys show that the majority of respondents have moved back into their original housing type. The proportion of homeowners and renters in April 2017 was the same as just before the fires.
Further, the surveys show that more residents have obtained insurance. At the time of the fires, about 40 percent of participants surveyed did not have homeowners or renters insurance. By December 2017, the uninsured rate was down to 30 percent.
In addition, the survey shows that the reported median monthly housing price in the Gatlinburg area increased in the year following the fires.
Although wildfire survivors said their money struggles continued, many reported signs of financial recovery.
In addition to receiving $1,000 per month for five months and a $5,000 cash transfer at the end of the program, many recipients maintained employment and their regular work hours in the aftermath of the fires. Across the observation periods, the median amount of hours worked per week remained at 40.
Reported savings rates and amounts of savings to weather a future financial emergency increased substantially from the first to second observation. By December 2017, nearly 60 percent of participants reported that they had emergency savings, compared to 53 percent in April 2017.
Still, household incomes among wildfire survivors are considerably lower than the median for the area while their housing cost burdens are high. Many of those who were impacted said they are paying an unsustainable portion of their income for housing.
Physical and Emotional Health
There is a sharp increase in reported symptoms of physical and emotional problems among wildfire survivors. For example, more than 25 percent of respondents said they had developed breathing or pulmonary problems as a result of the fires.
The surveys show a parallel rise in people seeking treatment, with 17 percent of survivors indicating they had received counseling for depression following the fires, and 21 percent indicating they had received counseling for anxiety.
“From these figures, it is clear that the wildfires not only wreaked havoc on property and finances but also in the emotional lives of survivors,” West said.
While results from the second survey show that respondents felt a greater sense of control of their own lives and hope for the future, many said they were still struggling against significant external obstacles.
Sources of Support
In December 2016, the Dollywood Foundation provided 885 families with immediate cash assistance. Nearly 1,000 families received this and other forms of assistance, including information from Mountain Tough as well as gifts and donations from community businesses and organizations.
Nearly 61 percent of the wildfire survivors responding to the survey said they received help from family, friends, and community entities and that cash was the most helpful form of support to aid in their recovery.
West stated that that these findings are important for future environmental and economic disasters, noting that “our traditional responses to disaster, such as providing item donations, are important, but those efforts should be delivered along with cash benefits. Providing survivors with cash allows families the ability to make their own decisions about what recovery looks like.”
Media coverage: WATE, April 19; News Sentinel, Kristi Nelson, April 19; WVLT, April 19; WBIR, April 20; Lebanon Democrat, April 25
Stacia West (615-782-6155, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kelsie Swift (865-974-3409, email@example.com)