FEMA responds to WSMV4 investigation revealing churches denied disaster aid over paperwork problems

WSMV4 Investigates detailed the plight of a Dresden church applying for aid after it was damaged in December 2021 tornado.
WSMV4 Investigate's Stacey Cameron reports.
Published: Jun. 2, 2023 at 8:37 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - A WSMV4 investigation has gotten the attention of federal officials in Washington D.C., following our report highlighting more than a dozen churches across the country, including some in Tennessee, getting denied assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency following natural disasters.

In that initial investigation, investigative reporter Stacey Cameron detailed the plight of the Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church that was destroyed in the tornado outbreak of Dec. 10, 2021.

Looking to rebuild following that natural disaster, the nearly 150-year-old church turned to FEMA and its Public Assistance Program for grant funding when it became clear insurance proceeds and congregate donations would not cover the entire cost.

FEMA turned Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian down, however, claiming that a handwritten deed from the 1880s granted ownership of the building to the church’s General Assembly and not the congregation. Therefore, according to FEMA, the General Assembly was the organization that should have applied for assistance.

The church disagreed with that opinion, telling WSMV4 Investigates it has operated as the building and property owner since the 1880s, paying all bills, including property insurance. And according to Steve Ramsey, the church’s insurance company paid off its policy obligations after the tornado.

“I’m not the legal expert, but I am pretty sure that insurance company would not have given us a check if they didn’t think we owned that building,” Ramsey said.

Nonetheless, Ramsey said the congregation decided to continue through the application process on the grounds it operated the building, as opposed to owning it, and therefore still qualified for disaster relief aid under the agency’s guidelines.

But once again, FEMA turned Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian down according to Ramsey, a church elder, due to a failure to submit the proper documentation.

“This is where a little bit of communication and a heavy dose of common sense would go real well,” said Ramsey. “We feel like we’ve sent FEMA everything asked for, but then five, six months later we hear back, and it’s no we need something else. So, we don’t know what they want. If FEMA would just pick up the phone call and say, ‘Hey Steve, we need this.’ I would send it.”

Following the WSMV4 report, FEMA officials in the Region 4 office, which covers Tennessee, agreed to speak with WSMV4 Investigates and answer questions.

Branch Chief Mike Phillips, who oversees the agency’s Public Assistance Program, said Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian’s second and final appeal is now at FEMA headquarters getting a closer look because of our reporting, and that a decision on whether to uphold to denial of aid should be made sooner rather than later.

When asked if FEMA treats churches unfairly when compared to other private non-profits, especially smaller congregations, Phillips said “absolutely not.”

“We understand the importance of houses of worship in the community, particularly after a disaster has hit,” Phillips said. “And we look at houses of worship of any size the same as we would any private non-profit, but what we have are eligibility criteria for all to meet.”

In the case of Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian, Phillips said his branch has tried three times to help them meet eligibility requirements, which is more assistance than most applicants receive according to Phillips.

“I understand the connection of the parishioners with that church,” Phillips said. “We tried to help get them to the point of yes.”

According to Phillips, the church was denied aid a second time because they failed to submit paperwork needed to show an operational relationship with the church owner according to FEMA.

“We’re looking for documents like a lease, or some memorandum of agreement, or something that establishes that they’re authorized to operate it in that way,” Phillips said.  “And that’s because we need to make sure that whatever taxpayer funds we are awarding for any project goes to the right entity.”

“That makes no sense,” Ramsey said. “It’s not like we are renting a house or something. We’ve owned that building since 1889. So, no we don’t have a lease.

“We pay the bills, we pay the insurance, again we even sent them a letter from our General Assembly, who FEMA says owns the building, and that letter said we do in fact operate the church. That didn’t work either.”

While Phillips could not say what FEMA officials in Washington, D.C., would consider when reviewing Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian’s appeal, he did say if the church was awarded funding from headquarters, his office would act quickly to aid the church.

“I grew up in a small church,” Phillips said. “So, I understand some of the challenges a smaller congregation may face, but these are the eligibility requirements on the book, and this is what we looked at in adjudicating their eligibility.”