Story by Shannon Taylor Senior Investigative Reporter
Dec. 10 marks the one-year anniversary of the tornado that swept through Dresden, upending the lives of everyone whose path it crossed. Early on, residents had hoped that help would come, but now many feel that hope was lost due to the Weakley County Long Term Recovery Group’s (WCLTRG) slow, lengthy and complicated process as well as its continued lack of transparency to the public. In one year, not one house has been rebuilt in Dresden by WCLTRG, many are still waiting to be assigned a case manager and some are still waiting for help while in case management.
This reporter has been actively investigating WCLTRG since its start-up in March due to multiple reports received from residents seeking help and not finding it, instead being told things like “own your own recovery” and “money is limited.” The press has now received documents and statements from a member of its board who wishes to remain anonymous as well as two other board members showcasing discrepancies within the WCLTRG.
The press reached out to WCLTRG letting board members know that a source had come forward and to give them an opportunity to respond, but Co-chair Justin Crice wanted a list of questions that would be asked up front. This reporter, in light of transparency, did not feel comfortable giving questions up front and giving them time to plan and prepare for the questions, instead assuming that, as professional members of WCLTRG, they would be able to handle any questions asked of them. Asking for questions ahead of time undermines credibility and raises suspicions. The press relayed that in an email and received a response that they would, in fact, be willing to sit down and speak with the press. Their responses to concerns are included.
Shortly after the tornado hit, hundreds of people flocked to GoFundMe’s organized by various organizations whose monies totaled close to $800,000 in the beginning. Organizations sat on the money after Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum and others who started WCLTRG asked everyone to wait for them to form and fund through one entity, leading many people to sit around and wait on FEMA, SBA and Red Cross denials-only receiving resource information from the Recovery Center in Dresden, but no actual monetary help.
Three months after the tornado, WCLTRG formed, with the application period starting March 15. Once the application process started, many told the press they had to jump through numerous hoops and were still awaiting help several months after they started the application process. Early on, Crice cited “issues hiring people for case management” as reasons for delays as well as disaster recovery being “very time consuming.” However, those delays continued eight months later.
April Lieberman, a member of Dresden Rotary Club, who has been frustrated with WCLTRG, said it seemed to have been formed out of the concerns of community leaders that families affected by the tornado might “double-dip,” receiving duplicative assistance from multiple community groups. “This body, and the ethic driving it, seems more concerned with making sure tornado victims do not receive too much help, than in actually helping our neighbors. How hard can it be to cut checks to help tornado victims when the need is so obvious and widespread?”
Ex officio member Jeff Washburn said he was ostracized by WCLTRG, especially when he spoke with the Press about the Misty Pence case. Washburn stated, “I’m a free American and I don’t really care what they think about who I talk to. They should quit looking at their own image and start looking after the people that they were charged to help with those funds.”
Washburn said that WCLTRG has been more concerned with their own reputation and appearance to the public than they are with helping people. “They’ve spent more time at these meetings trying to figure out how to comment about stuff and how they’re going to hide stuff than they have being purpose driven to assist the people that were victims of the tornado.”
Crice stated that, “I think from looking at our mission and what we were looking at doing-our goal is to partner with survivors impacted by this disaster to assist in their reasonable and equitable recovery-I think we want to make sure that all of our voices say the same thing, so yes, I would have said that we need to stay on the same page and communicate with one voice towards any press and that’s why we chose to keep putting out press releases.” UMCOR consultant Robert Craig also stated that it was common practice for the chair to handle any interviews or questions from the media.
Our source on the board showed a confidentiality agreement that all board members were told they had to sign which stated, “I agree to keep all information exchanged at the Weakley County Long Term Recovery Group meetings, including information about donor individuals, donor organizations and client cases in confidence and will not disseminate this information except as authorized by the applicant and as is necessary to develop and implement a recovery plan for applicants.” The agreement was brought up at the August meeting after the press started asking questions, asking to sit at board meetings and after some members were told not to speak with the press.
Crice stated that the reason for the agreement was because “we wanted everyone to know that this was not to be shared outside the meeting.” Craig added to that by stating, “The purpose of the confidentiality agreement is not to keep secrets from the community” further stating “in those meetings, it shouldn’t be, but survivors could come up that would be identifiable” and so they could “speak more with one voice so that you don’t have 10-12 people trying to share their idea of what the message is, so to have a communications chair that funnels the communication for the LTRG directly to the community so it’s in unison rather than having some misinformation that might be out there.”
In May the Press and the Dresden Enterprise sat down in a meeting to discuss the media attending board meetings and Secretary Joyce Washington said that she couldn’t make that call-that it would be up to the board to determine that. Crice said, “We’d get some Press coverage that way” and Washington said, “that way the accurate information got out regardless of what other people might say because the Press would be there, and the Press would then report what they heard.” Crice agreed. However, neither the Press nor the Enterprise were ever notified of any of these meetings.
Craig stated, “It’s not common practice for press to be there because of the confidential nature of some things that might be discussed, but that’s not to keep information from the Press.” Craig did say that he had spoken with Crice about having a community awareness meeting periodically to share information.
The press submitted an FOIA request for the purposes of transparency in the community so the public could have some relief in knowing what was going on, asking for names/addresses to be redacted, but it was denied due to them not being a government agency and therefore, not subject to FOIA requests.
At the Oct. board meeting Bynum asked the board to provide an estimate for how much money would be needed to complete all the work so they could show that current funding would not be sufficient to meet all needs.
Crice said, “I don’t think we’ve ever discussed what the cost would be. I do know that we have talked about estimates of rebuilds and construction cases we have that we would probably need to raise more funds to meet all the unmet needs in this community.”
Craig said that the particular meeting where Bynum asked that question was “some time ago back in the summer at least, so the data was more inflated back then, but I can remember that number being well in excess of a million dollars in unmet needs.”
Several residents even told the press they were told money was limited stating that they had been encouraged to accept pricey SBA loans instead of help from WCLTRG.
Craig responded with, “Communities typically cannot afford the fullness of the recovery for survivors that are impacted. There was some money raised in Weakley County-I don’t know how much because it’s all in different organizations.” Craig said that typically the funds raised are nowhere near enough to help recover all survivors’ unmet needs. “That’s not to say that survivors are to take loans they can’t afford, but if they’re approved for an SBA loan then it’s a stringent practice that they wouldn’t be approved if they couldn’t repay it and it’s extremely low interest.” Craig said that they look at all resources available and what the survivor can utilize and then the number that is left after that, WCLTRG tries to fill that gap of the unmet need. “That ensures an equitable recovery because people that do have access to resources that can help recover themselves utilize them because there are other folks that don’t have access to resources.”
As of Nov., the current partnering organizations listed with WCLTRG are Dresden Church of Christ, Dresden First Baptist Church, Dresden Rotary Club, Greenfield Church of Christ, Lebanon Church of Christ, Weakley County Baptist Association, and Lutheran Disaster Response.
Some organizations refused to partner from the start, and some were said to have left later. Be the Village refused to sign on at the start, and according to Washburn, others have pulled out including the Dresden Elks Lodge and the Martin Business Association (MBA). “The Elks Lodge withdrew after initially planning on being part of the group and they have started handling their own decisions on a case-by-case basis. The Martin Business Association is also making their own decisions about how to disperse their money and functioning outside the WCLTRG.”
Crice stated that MBA has not withdrawn. “We’ve set up a process for them to distribute many grants to Dresden business owners.” Crice said that they’d been working on that for a couple of months, further stating that there was an initial meeting with multiple organizations to discuss partnering with WCLTRG and that Dresden Elks Lodge never joined LTR. However, the press brought a Facebook post by WCLTRG on Oct. 28 to their attention which stated that funding was provided by Dresden Elks Lodge. Melton said, “They attended the first meeting and obtained all the paperwork and then they never attended another meeting. After the first meeting they didn’t come back.” Crice said, “they were not ever a funding partner.” Co-chair and Allocations Alisha Melton said, “they have not ever provided any funding to us.” However, the October Facebook post was long after the first meeting that they would have attended.
Lieberman spoke further on WCLTRG stating, “in the early days after the tornado, the city and county mayors asked various nonprofits involved in the recovery to fund the WCLTRG. This has turned into a bottleneck of relief funds, with painfully slow case reviews, numerous delays in setting up what seems to be an unnecessary, ineffective infrastructure, hiring professional caseworkers, meetings ad nauseum accomplishing nothing. At six months out, I believe only one or two victims had been assigned caseworkers. It’s unacceptable. A seeming lack of urgency has put the “long” in long-term recovery. It has been incredibly frustrating for me and other members of nonprofits who raised funds to try to help people. Those recovery funds have been held hostage in a bogged down, overly bureaucratic process.”
Lieberman also stated that she had reached out many times to WCLTRG urging action. She said that Crice told her that “People who have requested assistance are first asked if they can’t recover on their own.” Lieberman stated, “That is asinine. If people have asked for help, then how about actually helping them instead of trying to shame and dissuade them from receiving assistance, from money that was raised specifically to help Dresden tornado victims. I had to stop fundraising for Dresden Rotary’s tornado relief fund because I could not get an answer from Crice as to how our funds were being used. He also refused to provide information as to the WCLTRG’s administrative costs. If it is spending twice the amount it is dispersing to victims in order to pay caseworkers from Florida, how does that make sense? We need an immediate audit of its operations.”
Washburn stated that some of the funds received by WCLTRG came from public entities: Wilson County being one of them. Wilson County sent a check for $100,000 from their city to donate to the city of Dresden and the Dresden city board voted to give that money to the Rotary Club to hold for WCLTRG to help assist people in Dresden with unmet needs.
Our source stated that financial information has not even been given to everyone on the board. “There’s been verbal statements made, but nothing handed out at the meetings that showed this much was in the bank, this much was being held by private groups for distribution or this much had been given out for repairs.”
The group so far had refused to discuss anything related to finances except for stating how much money has been dispersed thus far. The group had not yet stated how that money has been spent.
Melton said that a spreadsheet is kept recording everything that is spent. “All donations go directly to survivor support.” Melton said that she could provide a line item and that the categories are auto, construction, furniture, home repairs, households, housing, services, storage and supplies. “As of today, we have spent $158,967. I can provide a line item in the Press release if you think that’s what the community wants. That’s not a problem.”
Crice said, “I think our concern with that was that Dresden is a small town and people can kind of look at amounts allocated to each construction case, and you might be able to decipher who that was based on the location.”
Craig said, “But as we get multiple projects going that’s less likely to be identifiable.”
President and CEO of United Way Matt Marshall explained the way the money works stating, “Each organization retains their own money and as needs arise that need to be met-from there they can make individual determinations on whether they will want to utilize their funds to go towards that particular recovery effort. In such an instance, United Way doesn’t receive any of that funding-all we’ve agreed to is (and UMCOR has kind of stepped into that role) to keep long-term records of what’s been spent and what’s taken place. There is no flow of money to United Way or UMCOR. They pay directly to whoever provides the service.”
Melton elaborated, “UMCOR does a case presentation toll which is about a four-page document outlining, without identifying a survivor, what their needs are, resources they have and what resources they’re lacking. They give a bottom total amount that’s due.” That amount due would be broken up by a certain amount for each thing needed and then Melton said what she does then is use that case presentation and contact one of the organizations with the request and ask if they are willing to fund the request. “If they say yes, then I supply the construction companies name and they write a check directly to the construction company. I log that on our allocation’s spreadsheet, so we have a record of it.” The case manager has the organization sign off as the funder for that case presentation tool, so they have all the paperwork documented including where the money went and what survivor it went to. Once a quarter Melton sends copies of that spreadsheet to United Way, and UMCOR provides the case presentation tool so that they have that for their records, and they have a running tally of all the money that has been spent.
Regarding transparency, Marshall stated, “When there are separate pots of money, unless everyone is 100% transparent about how much they have at any given time and how much they raised to begin with-nobody can truly know. None of us can tell you with 100% certainty how much money has been raised within the last year. We don’t know because there were individuals who never even shared that information to begin with. There are other individuals who still haven’t shared that information. That’s okay-that’s their choice, but it does make it much more difficult for that to be communicated openly to the public when we don’t even know.”
In the beginning, most organizations gave the press the total donated funds they had collected except for the Baptist Association and Dresden First Baptist Church, but organizations have now refused to speak with the press concerning how much money has been raised in the past year. Some organizations GoFundMe’s are still up, and the money raised sits in a bank account accumulating interest. No one has spoken so far as to where that interest will go or how much money has accumulated in the past year.
Caldwell County, KY’s LTRG actually voted to return the money they had received back to the donors after disappointment was expressed concerning the process and the donors’ intentions. Many residents the Press spoke with have wondered why WCLTRG doesn’t do the same.
Mayfield’s mayor, Kathy O’Nan and council members actually requested an audit of their LTRG to provide transparency regarding tornado donations and clear up any confusion related to how the money was being spent.
The goal of WCLTRG was supposed to have been to meet unmet needs and help put residents back in the same position they were in before the tornado, but so far, with information collected over the past year, survivors and others feel that WCLTRG has failed the city of Dresden in that effort. Our source stated, “some have given up because of the casework process and some have been continually denied help over and over again.”
Many residents complained early on that case managers weren’t from Dresden, but Florida. Washburn showed frustration with the slow pace of casework, expressing concerns that UMCOR was contracting casework out to people not from here. “I’m extremely frustrated with how victims were treated by caseworkers. They’re not functioning in an expeditious manner.” Case managers were hired through Compass 82, a subcontractor out of UMCOR and Mike Carroll, another ex-officio member said, “It didn’t take me long to figure out that this is the biggest mess.”
Craig stated that the reason for this was because WCLTRG doesn’t employ case managers. They are employed through the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference of the United Methodist Church. “We have a LTR program that we operate throughout our geographic region, so we have case managers that live all throughout that area.” Craig said that the case managers from Florida were external partners they subbed out until they could get additional case managers hired. “In such a small community it’s tough to find folks that can be disaster case managers, but then also to really be able to establish some of the relationships and ask some of the tough questions of people that you might have known your whole life.”
However, later on a case manager was hired from Dresden and to this day, that person is the only case manager from Dresden. Questions have been raised about that, insinuating that it looked like WCLTRG were trying to keep people silent by offering them positions/partnerships. After one resident came forward regarding her struggle with WCLTRG, Misty Pence, and the story was published, she was soon after hired as a case manager.
Jeniffer Green, who has also been very outspoken regarding WCLTRG, stated that she had multiple conversations with Crice about her concern for citizens with unmet needs. Green also stated that Crice asked her to “partner with WCLTRG to fundraise” on three separate occasions, which she declined. Green felt the offer was an attempt to silence her from asking more questions.
Regarding Green, Crice said “I did contact her because she has experience in fundraising, and she contacted us initially first, so we did talk to her on multiple occasions.” Crice said that he told her that if she wanted to help that would be one avenue that she could help. Crice said that he would say offering that partnership to silence her was false.
Melton said, “Jeniffer Green called me three times. I’ve never called her. We texted one day when she sent me some screenshots and I replied okay and then we talked at the sunrise cemetery cleanup. I don’t believe we ever mentioned fundraising. I know I did not ask her to fundraise for us-she may have mentioned it, but I did not ask her to.”
Regarding Pence, Craig stated that she was employed by UMCOR and that “she was employed under the regular hiring practices and there were no undercurrents of why she would’ve received employment. She was employed because she applied, interviewed and was offered a position.”
Former Survivor Advocacy Committee Chair Mike Carroll told the Press that, with all the grants they have coming in, he doesn’t understand how they are struggling with fundraising. “I just don’t, and that’s something I don’t want to be involved in and some of the others don’t as well.”
Crice responded that “from our standpoint I think we would fundraise if we had unmet needs and work to fill all needs so we can to ensure everybody at the end of the line gets what they need.”
Craig elaborated that fundraising would be to seek partnerships similar to the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference, United Way and others with resources available.
The press spoke with a few of the residents that were still awaiting help a year later. One survivor said that they were still in the same position as a year ago. “It seems to be out of WCLTRG’s hands right now and the continued delays seem to be coming from UMCOR.” They mentioned the delays causing continued mental stress and that they were offered mental help assistance through Pathways at personal cost to them.
The survivor sounded defeated as they said, “We sit in this house each and every day, pretending like nothing happened. Particularly when we speak up, the UMCOR staff gets very defensive and threats to close our case.”
Crice said, “If we referred them to Pathways then LTR would cover any mental health needs unless they’ve been vetted and can afford it on their own.”
Craig denied anyone threatening to close the case because of frustration. “That’s not a part of the process” stating that the survivor should have contact information for their case managers supervisor if they have an issue. “We encourage survivors to own their own recovery and there are times when a survivors mental and emotional state, because of the trauma they’ve experienced, that they’re not in a place where it’s in their best interests to pursue the fullness of a recovery plan until they can address that.” Craig said that the goal was to get survivors to a place where they could own their own recovery. “We want to walk alongside you but we’re not going to pull you.”
Board members discussed the commemoration of the Dec. 10 tornado which would include Carroll leading a subcommittee for this effort. Carroll also suggested a proclamation of Dec. 10 as “Dresden Strong Day.” The research for that came from a reason to celebrate, according to Carroll, because Dresden did not suffer any deaths. “That is reason to celebrate in itself.”
Carroll put in his resignation two weeks ago stating that he had worked hard with the commemoration event which was to “help survivors to heal” but after much thought, he felt that there were too many things he didn’t appreciate happening including things getting scrapped and information not coming to him. “It’s not going where I thought it would go, but I’m not going to stop advocating for myself and other survivors.”
Carroll said that he had really hoped that those who had unmet needs would be in case management after one year, however, that was not the case because 25 were still not in case management. “I think if you look at those numbers, they don’t go down very quickly.” As of the October board meeting, the numbers for cases showed 874 with contact attempted of 769 of them, 62 closed cases, 43 open cases and 25 awaiting case management.
Crice said that it all takes time and Craig said that in April they weren’t staffed to be assigning people into case management yet, nor was the LTRG formed with all of its structures and functions at that point. “We really probably started assigning in late May or early June would be my guess.” Crice stated that he had no idea it would be this labor intensive, but that he stands by it and would recommend the process they’ve utilized to any community going through a similar situation.
One of the things that really disappointed Carroll was that UMCOR was supposed to have three teams come in and he asked if he could find out where they were going to be but was told that would be confidential. “How do we know the works getting done? Who’s checking UMCOR? I want to bring some things to light and things that need to be looked at and one thing is: UMCOR needs to be accountable to somebody and several members feel that way, but I don’t know if they feel comfortable discussing it.” Carroll also stated that UMCOR was calling the shots at WCLTRG and that it seemed to him that UMCOR was slowly gaining control of all aspects and that “disaster has become a business.” Carroll stated that those in UMCOR’s employment were not allowed to speak with anyone without permission from UMCOR.
Tommy and Karen Wilson also submitted their resignations in Oct. due partially to “the negative press in the newspaper the past month” however Washburn said that they were actually “put out” by the group. Melton denied that claim.
Carroll said that Karen Wilson was the volunteer coordinator and she’s gone. Tommy Wilson, construction manager, is gone. Survivor advocacy is gone. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Crice stated that the new program coordinator, Misti Pequignot, would aid in the volunteer and construction side. “At this time, we don’t have replacements for them but if anyone wants to help and volunteer to fill those roles, we’d be glad to have them.” No applicants have responded to the construction manager position as of yet. Pequignot never spoke once at the meeting the Press had with WCLTRG.
As far as moving forward, Crice stated that in order to combat suspicions regarding work being done, money and finances would be by making press releases that show how the money is being used within the categories and to show the allocations as they’re being sifted out.
Crice said that as work is done that pictures could be taken while still keeping the confidentiality of survivors but also displaying work being done to “develop a stronger communication to the Press.”
Craig said that the reason they are using the model they are using is “so that duplication of benefits does not happen and to make sure that there’s an equitable opportunity for recovery for everybody.” He said, “while it can be frustratingly slow, sometimes you waste money if you do it too quickly and inefficiently and you have people who don’t get what they need to recover. Our goal is to help everyone recover.”
Crice said, “We’ll be here as long as it takes. Hopefully our press releases are more responsive to community needs and more transparent as to where funds are going.”
The press has been informed that residents may call for an investigation into the financial record of WCLTRG and all organizations affiliated with them by contacting the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation at 1-800-824-3463 or at TipsToTBI@tn.gov.
The press spoke with John Dunn at the Tennessee Comptroller’s office who stated, “Our office could certainly investigate any public funds received by this group. The Comptroller’s Office investigates fraud, waste, and abuse of public (taxpayer) money and assets. Dunn can be reached at John.Dunn@cot.tn.gov.
Dunn also said that The Secretary of State’s Office handles other reviews involving traditional charities and nonprofits and that disaster relief funds might also need to take additional steps with the Secretary of State’s Office if they raise a certain amount of money. Julia Bruck with the Secretary of State can be reached at Julia.Bruck@tn.gov.