Sevier County Mayor faces test with blaze

12/5/2016

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters has moderated news conferences on the fires in Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park all week with seemingly finesse.

He started them, sometimes with an update on the number of deaths. He introduced others, welcomed questions, sometimes clarified answers of others and then adjourned the conferences, held in the Gatlinburg Community Center’s library. He almost forgot to introduce the park superintendent and a Red Cross representative Wednesday but then quickly added he had only had four hours' sleep.

“Larry’s got the patience of Job,” said Gary Wade, a former Sevierville mayor and state Supreme Court justice who is dean of the Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law. “It’s the way he’s survived.”

Waters, a Republican, has been county mayor - or formerly county executive as the position was once titled - since 1978 when elected at age 25. At the time he was the youngest person in the state to hold the position. Now he’s got more tenure in the position than anyone else in Tennessee.

It’s the kind of life he wanted when he obtained a B.S. in business administration at the University of Tennessee, with an emphasis on public administration. Following graduation, he returned to the community near Cosby, Tenn., in which he grew up to be the principal at Jones Cove Elementary School. But nothing he studied or experienced, Waters said, prepared him for the ravaging fires that killed residents and visitors and destroyed hundreds of businesses in Sevier County communities surrounding the country’s most heavily traveled national park. “It was the perfect storm. Everything had to happen for the disaster that came about,” he said.

“We had not had rain since July 5, unusual for this area. Even though I’ve had a lot of experience, had other disasters, floods, I’ve never had anything close to his magnitude. I don’t think I will ever see it again,” Waters said. Even he and his wife, Terri, had to leave their home on Buckhorn Road the first night. He said he had just gotten home when a transformer blew.

“Fortunately it never caught fire. It was amazing,” he said.

His wife stayed overnight with their son, David, while Waters stayed at the command center in Gatlinburg, he said.

Waters said he’s been out on some of the search missions and has manned the command center, handling whatever needed to be done. Wade said that is typical and likened Waters to the late Gov. Ned McWherter. Waters has held leadership positions in the United Way campaign, UT Chancellor’s Associates, state and regional development agencies, Gatlinburg’s First Baptist Church and the Sevier County GOP.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Georgiana Vines

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