Following WSMV4 investigation, FEMA reverses course and helps Tennessee church destroyed by tornado

Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church was damaged during a tornado outbreak in December 2021.
FEMA notified a Tennessee church it would receive public assistance to rebuild after a December 2021 tornado after WSMV4 Investigates' reporting.
Updated: Jun. 30, 2023 at 6:15 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - It took more than a year and a half, but on June 7 Steve Ramsey got a letter from FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., informing him that the Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church had been approved to receive Public Assistance funding to help rebuild the church.

“It definitely feels like a miracle,” Ramsey said. “And I needed it, because in dealing with FEMA, I had lost a lot of religion.”

Ramsey is an elder at Dresden Presbyterian, a historic church in the small town of Dresden, Tennessee, that was destroyed in the December 2021 tornado outbreak. As WSMV Investigates reported in May, the church worked to rebuild using insurance proceeds and member donations. But when it became clear those funds would not cover the total cost of reconstruction, the church applied for a Public Assistance grant with FEMA as Private Nonprofit.

In 2018, under the Trump Administration and facing two cases before the United State Supreme Court, FEMA reversed a decades old policy that disqualified “houses of worship” from receiving disaster relief aid. Aware of the ruling, and their eligibility for funding, Dresden Presbyterian applied for monies that would help the church pay a portion of its rebuilding costs.

However, as WSMV Investigates reported, FEMA denied the church twice, on the grounds the congregation did not have the proper paperwork needed to prove it owned or operated the nearly 150-year-old church. Specifically, regional FEMA officials believed a handwritten deed from the 1880s, gave the church to Dresden Presbyterian’s governing General Assembly, and not the local congregation.

But Dresden Presbyterian was not alone in getting its application for disaster relief denied due to paperwork issues. WSMV Investigates identified a dozen more churches across the country facing similar application problems, and appealing FEMA’s denial of aid.

Ramsey was convinced FEMA was treating churches unfairly, especially small congregations, on the basis they did not have the staff, resources, sophistication, or time to maneuver FEMA’s “burdensome application process.”

“They say churches are eligible, but it’s like they don’t quite have it figured out,” said Ramsey. “We don’t quite fit into the mold of who is eligible. It’s like putting a square peg into a round hole. We’ve given them everything they’ve asked for, and then they turn around and say, ‘No thank you’ again, and ask for more.”

Following WSMV Investigates original report, FEMA Regional Branch Chief Mike Phillips agreed to an interview with WSMV Investigates, and when asked whether FEMA and its application process treats churches unfairly, Phillips said “Absolutely not.”

“We look at houses of worship of any size the same as we would any private non-profit,” Phillips said. “What we have are eligibility requirements for all to meet. And in this case, the parent organization probably would probably have been the appropriate applicant.”

But five days after WSMV Investigates aired Phillips’ interview, Ramsey received the appeal letter from FEAM headquarters, overturning the original denial of aid, and setting the church up to receive FEMA’s financial help.

“We had just about lost all hope that anything good was going to happen,” Ramsey said. “But now, we’ve already had two Zoom meetings with FEMA folks, and that’s more conversation than I had with in a year-and-a-half.”

Ramsey said now there is no clear indication how much disaster relief aid Dresden Cumberland will from FEMA, but he hopes it will go a long way in paying the more than $100,000 dollars need to pay the remaining rebuilding bills.

“I know WSMV played a big role in our getting this help from FEMA” Ramsey said. “If I were them, I would not have wanted to get a call from channel 4.”

With his church now ready to move forward, Ramsey hopes Dresden Presbyterian’s battle with FEMA helps change the fate of other churches still fighting for disaster relief funds.

“It’s a long dusty road, and if you’re not prepared to stick it out to the end, you’re just going to have a lot of futility for nothing,” Ramsey said.