Special Report: State, Feds Owe Tenn. Communities Millions in Flood Dollars

Sep 4, 2013

Flooded Tennessee homes as photographed in the spring of 2010 by a FEMA aerial survey team.
Credit FEMA.gov

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  -- Soon after the spring 2010 floods devastated large portions of Tennessee, state lawmakers began to complain that disaster charities were moving too slowly in their efforts to aid survivors. In 2011, legislators passed a law requiring charities to file regular reports detailing how donated funds were being spent.

However, there were other recovery purse strings lawmakers failed to hold as tightly. Communities all across Tennessee are still owed millions of disaster recovery dollars by state and federal agencies.

WMOT News recently toured one of the communities hardest hit by the 2010 floods with Cheatham County Emergency Management Director Edwin Hogan. Hogan pointed out homes that have yet to be rebuilt along Chapmansboro Road where Sycamore Creek empties into the Cumberland River.

Hogan said flood waters reached the roof lines of some homes. He was so worried about what might happen in this low-lying community as the 2010 floodwaters continued to rise, he ordered-in extra body bags.

“This gentleman right back here,” Hogan said, pointing to a home as he drove past, “we went by and the man said ‘You’ll get me off my rooftop before I’ll leave my house,’  That was on Monday morning. Tuesday morning they got him off his rooftop.”

The flooding and storms killed 24 people statewide, but no on died in Cheatham County. The county did suffer widespread destruction with more than 500 homes damaged; many were a total loss.

The county spent millions of dollars repairing roads, bridges, and schools. Still more money was spent on debris removal, home inspections, and other recovery projects.

Now Hogan insists Cheatham County is suffering a second disaster. He notes the county waited months - years in some cases - to be reimbursed for money spent on the recover by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State of Tennessee.

“To me that’s just too long to have to wait,” Hogan said. “Tell us something. You know, every time we would call the state and the state would call FEMA they would tell us, ‘Well it’s in the stack. It’s in the stack. It’s in the stack.’”

To pay the contractors who completed the flood recovery work, Cheatham County used money it was saving to build new schools. It still has yet to pay all of that money back. Hogan said that in recent months, FEMA has finally reimbursed the county for about $1.5 million. But the agency has told local officials it will not pay for all the work the county understood would be covered.

“It looks like we’re gonna’ be out right at about $550,000 in Public Assistance. Most of that in debris removal and home inspections,” he said.

Hogan said he and other county officials had a face-to-face meeting with FEMA and state officials in 2010 soon after floodwaters receded. During the meeting, he said they were given verbal assurances the extra costs would be covered.

“We explained to them what we were doing and why we were doing it,” he recalls. “ And would that be covered? ‘Yes it will be covered.’ I guess next time we have to get FEMA to sign it in blood.”

It turns out Cheatham County isn’t alone. Thirty-nine months after the 2010 floods, FEMA still owes Tennessee communities about one dollar out of every four spent on relief efforts and to repair infrastructure. The State of Tennessee still owes about 90 percent of what it agreed to pay.

Volunteers clear debris left behind by Tennessee's record setting 2010 floods.
Credit FEMA.gov

WMOT News also toured Metro Nashville’s K. R. Harrington Water Treatment Plant. The Harrington plant was badly damaged in the 2010 floods. It was out of service for nearly a month.

Metro Water Finance Manager Tony Neumaier said more than 230 individual flood repairs were made to the Harrington plant alone. FEMA initially approved most of the work. But when it came time to reimburse the city, FEMA rejected some claims. Neumaier said he had to get FEMA approval on the same work several times.

“I mean you can’t sit back as someone in the disaster and say, ‘Well, it was already approved. We documented it.’ I mean it’s up to you to sell it back - resell it I guess - that it was damaged and it is available for reimbursement,” Neumaier explained.

At this point Metro Nashville alone is appealing about $33 million dollars in disaster recovery expenditures; projects Metro thought FEMA had approved for reimbursement. Neumaier said he’s worked a lot of long days since 2010.

“FEMA comes in and there are stacks of books you’ve got to read to understand their rules,” he said, laughing. “I think it’s a learning curve for anybody that’s going through a disaster to really learn the rules. I could be a consultant at this point.”

In part two of this story, we’ll get the state and FEMA’s perspective on the recovery process. We’ll also hear from a former, high-ranking FEMA official - who now consults with communities like Metro and Cheatham County - on how to navigate the disaster bureaucracy.