UT study: Cash may have helped wildfire survivors most in recovery

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) -- The University of Tennessee released its findings Thursday after administering surveys to about 100 people who received help from Dolly Parton's My People Fund following the devastating Sevier County wildfires in November 2016. The surveys were administered in April 2017 and again in December 2017.

Just 48 hours after the wildfires began, Dolly Parton created the fund through the Dollywood Foundation. The fund gave families who lost their homes $1,000 a month for six months, and a final gift of $5,000 in May 2017.

Professor Stacia West and others in UT's College of Social Work gave questionnaires to those who received help from the My People Fund.

The research developed from those surveys found that cash transfers, compared to specific donations, could be an important and underutilized approach to helping survivors of a natural disaster recover.

The surveys found that the majority of people questioned moved back into their original housing type, but more residents got insurance after the fires. About 40 percent of participants did not have homeowners or renters insurance at the time of the fires, but by December 2017, the uninsured rate was down to 30 percent.

As for financial impact, wildfire survivors said that while they continued to struggle, many surveyed actually had seen signs of financial recovery. Many recipients kept their employment and regular work hours in the aftermath of the fires, and the median amount of hours worked per week stayed at 40 after the fires.

Financial savings also increased substantially from the first to the second surveys. By December 2017, nearly 60 percent of those surveyed reported that they had emergency savings, compared to 53 percent in April 2017.

However, household incomes among survivors were considerably lower than the median for the area while their housing costs were high. Many of the people impacted said they were paying an unsustainable portion of their income just for housing.

According to the research, reported symptoms of physical and emotional problems among wildfire survivors sharply increased after the fires. More than 35 percent of those surveyed said they had developed breathing or pulmonary problems as a direct result of the wildfires. Seventeen percent of survivors also said they had received counseling for depression after the fires, and 21 percent said 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.

Respondents said that while they felt a better sense of control over their lives and hope for the future, many also said they were still struggling against significant obstacles.

Researchers said the Dollywood Foundation gave 885 families immediate cash assistance in December 2016, and nearly 1,000 families received that and other forms of assistance, like gifts and donations from the community and Mountain Tough.

Nearly 61 percent of the survivors who took the UT survey said they received help from family, friends and community members. They also said that cash was the most helpful form of support in their recovery.

“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," West said of the study's results.

For more information and to view the full report, click here.