Tennessee-based photographer Jeremy Cowart was in church when he heard about the wildfires in Gatlinburg. The fires, which are thought to have been started by two teenagers in late November, caused $500 million in damages, left 14 dead and destroyed over 2,000 homes and businesses. Cowart stayed in a donated cabin nearby and worked with drone operators to document families in the charred remains of their homes. He interviewed each one and published their stories on his Instagram feed, urging his followers to donate to the pages set up for the families. Below are a few of his striking portraits, with excerpts from Jeremy’s interviews.
Gary and Linda Jackson
Gary and I lived in this home for 16 and a half years. Our insurance company is temporarily housing us in a Knoxville hotel. Gary and I were out of town when the fire took our home. The year 2016 has been a hard year for us. Gary’s mom’s health deteriorated before our eyes. I had a heart attack in June and lost a brother to brain cancer in September. We needed to get away for a few days. On the morning of Nov. 29 we turned on the TV for the news and saw Gatlinburg burning! We could not believe our eyes!!! A couple of days later we learned our home was one of the many that was lost. We praised God that we were not there to evacuate. We know God’s hand was in our being away and truly believe we would not have had time to get off the mountain and very possibly could have died that night. (The Jacksons’ GoFundMe Page)
The Compton Family
What we miss most: Our family heirlooms and our pictures. We also miss the comfort of our home. We are grateful for everyone’s help but we certainly miss our home.
Needs: As of right now we have our basic needs met. We are O.K. There are people in worse shape than us. There is still a lot that needs to be replaced. We even lost our vehicles.
Christmas needs: Several local people and their churches are providing the children with their Christmas. As of right now, there are no immediate Christmas needs.
We were evacuated at 5:30 that Monday night and were barely able to see or breathe from all the smoke. There were cops, people and pets everywhere. When we got home the power got knocked out and we had limited phone service. We didn’t know we would be in any danger on the east side of town until the winds kicked up a bit [to 87 mph]. We decided to play it safe and pack and leave our house and help my 85-year-old grandfather do the same but our shared driveway was blocked by a huge downed pine tree that me and my brother had to cut up and remove. It was pretty stressful and scary! Our homes were O.K. Escaped with minor wind damage but [our pottery] studio was a total loss. (Tommy’s GoFundMe Page)
The Lopez Family
What do you miss most about what you lost?
Being about to see my children happy and playing with their toys and sleeping safely in their rooms.
What are your current needs?
I’m desperately needing a permanent home. I go out daily trying to found something better but haven’t had much luck. Up till last night I was staying at the shelter. I need a place where I can feel secure for me and my two babies. I’m a single mom struggling to stay strong for my babies and find us a home. Christmas is without a home. We won’t be able to have a Christmas.
I grew up on a 3,200 acre watershed called Norton Creek. My father, after many years, lost it after being distraught from the death of my mother when I was 11. My brother, sister and I were each given one acre and I managed to hold on to mine despite good offers. It’s been my dream to build a stone house since I was a kid. I’ve been working on it for years one step at a time doing all the work myself with some help from dear friends of mine. It’s a creative process so I love it. What I had built thus far was a work of art using solid oak and eastern cedar. Now I am standing in its ashes wondering why me. But it wasn’t just me, it was my whole town. None of us saw it coming. This tragedy has reinstated my faith in mankind. I’ve always been one to prefer giving over receiving, so as I get back up on my feet I will boomerang all of this love and compassion right back to my home community so that we all can rise up stronger and better than ever before! It’s time to shine like the sun and make the world a better place! (Kirk’s CrowRise Page)
Autumn and Layla Grushka
On that Monday morning as we were headed to school it was already very smoky. When I went to work at 11:00 I was in complete shock. It looked like it was 7:00 p.m. but with an orange tint! They called off school around noon. We went home and the house was smelling smoky so I taped off around all the doors and closed the flue. We went and did errands and came back to the house around 6:00. A few friends called saying I should leave but I really didn’t think we were in that kind of danger! Finally around 7:00 I decided we would go because my daughter said her eyes were burning. So I loaded our two dogs and a few other things into the car. It was so windy I told her to look at the ground and cover her eyes. When I finally got in the car I saw embers in the driveway. My heart dropped. Then she started screaming and crying and pointed out the top of the hill to the left of us was on fire! I got to the bottom of our hill and the whole mountain was on fire. Before I knew it we were on 321. We were going to my sister’s house but apparently a power line had just fallen. We were only three cars back and waited and waited. So finally I turned around and thought I would just go down and around and take the bypass.
As we were driving I can’t describe how frantic she was, and screaming, “Mommy I don’t wanna go back home.” Right as we got to the parkway a policeman just closed it off. So the absolute only way out of town was turning back around towards the downed power line. We got back and sat for probably 45 minutes. It was scary because the smoke was so bad and sirens just kept passing going both directions. We finally got to my sister’s but the sky was bright orange there too. We were at a dead stop for hours. We made it to Kodak around midnight. I had confirmation my house was gone at 6:00 am. Someone did a favor and went and checked. Everything I owned was gone just like that! (Autumn & Layla’s GoFundMe Page)