At least eight counties in Tennessee experienced tornadoes and severe weather Tuesday night. We know of two fatalities in Polk County and injuries in Polk, Marion and McMinn counties, along with extensive property damage in the region.
Tuesday afternoon, I went to Sevier County to be briefed and see damage from wildfires – the largest fire in Tennessee in a hundred years. The Tennessee Department of Health has confirmed seven fatalities as a result, and there are a number of injuries and individuals missing or unaccounted for. More than 400 personnel and almost 100 fire apparatuses are supporting the firefighting effort in Sevier County. As governor, I am incredibly grateful for the way people have worked together across departments and local, state and federal government. The cooperation has been incredible.
The state is doing and will continue to do everything we can to support Sevier County. I’ve received calls from the governors of every neighboring state offering their help, and President Obama, President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Pence have called to offer their sorrow and pledged to do everything they can to help.
Sevier County is a special part of our state and a special part of the world, and it remains that. Our hearts are broken at the loss of life and loss of property, but there is good news, too. The people who settled this area were pioneers, and they still have that spirit. They are already hard at work taking care of each other and getting their lives and businesses back up and running. Millions of families have visited Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, and they will continue to.
TEMA and the Tennessee Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster have set up a call center (866-586-4483) for information about donating goods and volunteering to help survivors. For the latest updates on the situation in Sevier County, visit http://www.tnema.org/.
Last week, I visited Woodmore Elementary and Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, following the tragic bus crash that claimed the lives of six young children.
You’re not supposed to have elementary classrooms with empty desks. The sorrow all of us feel is incredibly deep.
I couldn’t be more proud or more grateful for the way Chattanooga and Hamilton County responded – teachers reassuring children with familiar faces, neighbors coming out to hold kids’ hands, first responders who saw things no one wants to see, medical professionals at Erlanger treating children, and the community filling up the school and hospital with food and toys and almost crashing a community fund website with their support.
This tragedy has raised a lot of questions about school bus safety. The state is taking a comprehensive look at the issue, everything from how local school boards select contractors, to how drivers are hired, to ensuring the safety of the equipment, to whether seat belts are appropriate. We need a fresh conversation about how to keep students safe.
Let me mention a few other things from the past month:
- We held our annual veterans ceremony, honoring five state employees who served our country in uniform. Click here to see our video honoring the +500,000 veterans who call Tennessee home.
- We conducted our annual budget hearings, where each department in state government laid out its objectives and proposals for the next fiscal year. You can click here for access to footage and presentations from the hearings.
- Nov. 1 marked the deadline for the state’s groundbreaking Tennessee Promise scholarship program, and 60,780 high school seniors applied. That’s up from 58,286 applicants in 2014 and 59,621 applicants in 2015. Also on the Drive to 55 front, we announced the 10 colleges and universities receiving a total of $24.3 million in Drive to 55 Capacity Funds to support enrollment increases.
- We also announced the 25 assistant principals from across the state who will participate in the 2017 Governor’s Academy for School Leadership (GASL), a program that helps build a pipeline of highly trained school principals and leaders.
- The holiday season is upon us. On Monday, we lit the Capitol Christmas Tree, and once again, Crissy and I want to invite you to the Tennessee Residence for our “Tennessee’s Home for the Holidays” open house, December 2-16. Click here to register for free tickets.