Faith vs. FEMA: Review of agency data shows only 1 in 3 churches applying for FEMA aid gets help

Religious institutions first became eligible to receive federal disaster aid during the Trump administration.
WSMV4 Investigates has been investigating FEMA to see whether the agency treats churches unfairly when applying for disaster aid through FEMA's programs.
Published: Oct. 2, 2023 at 8:40 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - For the past six months, WSMV4 Investigates has been investigating the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to see whether the agency treats churches unfairly when they apply for disaster aid through FEMA’s Public Assistance Program.

Our series of reports began when members of the Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church contacted WSMV4 asking for help after FEMA denied their application for aid due to a discrepancy in paperwork related to the church’s ownership.

Dating back to 1851, the cornerstone church in the tiny town of Dresden was destroyed in a December 2021 tornado outbreak that tore through parts of West and Middle Tennessee. Donations and insurance paid for a large part of the rebuild, but more financial assistance was needed according to church elder Steven Ramsey.

“The town of Dresden was considered part of a disaster area shortly after the tornado,” Ramsey said. “We applied to FEMA as a private nonprofit in February 2022.”

But FEMA denied the church’s application, saying it did not have the proper paperwork to establish that the congregation either owned or operated the church building destroyed in the storm.

Religious institution first became eligible to receive federal disaster aid when FEMA reversed its stance on houses of worship while under heavy criticism from the Trump administration and while facing two federal lawsuits.

With time running out on Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian’s second appeal of FEMA’s denial of aid, WSMV4 began calling and emailing FEMA to obtain data on how many houses of worship nationally had applied for aid since 2018 and how many were granted and denied assistance.

When the agency turned that information over to WSMV4 Investigates, we combed through FEMA’s numbers and learned between Jan. 1, 2018, and May 31, 2023, 1,724 houses of worship applied for aid under the Public Assistance Programs.

Of those applying, 1,073 were ruled eligible to receive disaster funds, while 140 were denied help. However, 479 houses of worship ended up withdrawing their applications after getting approved. Meaning in the end, only one in three churches in the past five years that have asked for help from FEMA have gotten any funds.

One of those churches walking away was located just five miles down the road from Ramsey’s congregation. The New Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church was also destroyed in the December 2021 tornado outbreak, and while they were initial determined eligible to receive aid, church elder John Bonar said the process was too cumbersome and time consuming for his 12-member congregation.

“All we got was paperwork,” Bonar said. “Lots and lots of paperwork.”

“It just wasn’t feasible for us to continue on because they made it too difficult,” Bonar said. “They acted like they wanted to help us churches, but then they just threw us down.”

While waiting for that data, FEMA headquarters in Washington D.C. did overturn the decision denying Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian’s aid request, and the church is now in line to receive the funds needed to rebuild.

“If I were them, I would not have wanted to get a call from Channel 4,” said Ramsey. “We had just about lost hope that anything good was going to happen. But things are looking better.”

Still, Ramsey said he understands the frustration of his neighboring church up the road because four months after FEMA said his congregation was eligible for help, they still haven’t received a dime.

“We chose to try and climb those mountains, but I can certainly see why others did not,” Ramsey said.

FEMA is communicating more now with the church, according to Ramsey, but he said no one at the agency has given them any idea when a check might finally get cut or how much finding is coming the church’s way.

“I keep reminding our person at FEMA how long we’ve been at this, but she keeps promoting patience,” said Ramsey.