Gatlinburg officials blame “communication failure” for evacuation controversy

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- Heartbreaking video captured live on Facebook gave a first look the Chalet Village cabins, an area that wasn't opened to residents until Sunday.

"Ugh. This is just absolutely horrible."

That particular area was one of the hardest hit after a firestorm rocked Gatlinburg.

"I did not think we were going to make it off the mountain because it was like all hell was breaking loose," Jerry Morin told WREG.

Morin and his wife Patti barely made it out alive after being trapped in the middle of an inferno that he claims they were never told to get out of.

"Absolutely no alert from anybody-- not from the cabin company, nor from anybody in Gatlinburg," Morin recalled.

"I know that he's not the only one who said that they didn't get a warning," Ashley Watson, Morin's daughter, said.

Terry Calhoun and his family shared a similar story despite Sevier County telling WREG on Friday that it sent out a cell phone alert to people in the area.

"Didn't know anything about the evacuation. Weren't warned anything, weren't told anything," Calhoun said.

Local officials would not answer questions about evacuation alerts at it's latest press conference.

WREG pushed for answers over the weekend.

While a spokesperson would not go on camera, they sent WREG a long statement that stated the city and county requested the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) put out evacuation text alerts around 8:30 p.m. on Monday night.

However, the multi-agency press release said that because of downed phones, the internet, and spotty electricity TEMA never got the message.

"I just feel like people should have been warned a lot earlier than we were," Calhoun expressed.

Many survivors said the failed communication could have cost them their lives.

According to the press release, alerts were issued over radio and television.

Officials said they will evaluate what -- if anything -- they could have done differently.

Here is the full multi-agency statement:

"Officials released the following details regarding the coordinated public response in warning the public about the firestorm. Officials worked diligently to coordinate the warning to the public before and during the catastrophic wildfire event that impacted Gatlinburg, other communities in Sevier County, and the park. Throughout the day, on Monday, November 28, officials sent media releases, utilized social media, and held media briefings to alert the public about the status of the fire to help them remain aware of the urgency of the continuously evolving situation.

Notifications were sent to the general public through widespread media coverage beginning with multiple news releases from the park beginning at approximately 10:00 a.m., regular news briefings beginning at 2:00 p.m., and the downtown Gatlinburg siren alert system to warn the public about the impending dangerous winds and fire threat. Officials made door-to-door notifications, beginning at noon, to affected communities.

Throughout the day, the command post was in contact with state emergency agencies about emergency response. At approximately 8:30 p.m., the command post contacted the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) requesting an Emergency Alert System (EAS) evacuation message to be sent to the Gatlinburg area through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), a system which has the capability of sending text messages to mobile devices.

However, communications between the agencies were interrupted due to the disabled phone, internet, and electrical services. Due to this communication failure, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned through IPAWS as an EAS message or as a text message to mobile devices.

At the same time, the National Weather Service was unable to reach the local command post. Through collaboration with the Sevier County Dispatch, they were able to deliver the mandatory evacuation alert through an EAS message to radio and television only. Once communications were reestablished, TEMA was able to send a mobile message later in the evening via IPAWS asking Sevier County residents to stay off mobile devices except for emergency use.

Despite the catastrophic events that created barriers to communication, officials utilized all resources available to them at the time to warn the public of the impending threat. The multi-agency response of firefighters, police, and emergency responders continues to work efficiently as they enter the recovery phase."

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