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A Open Letter in Support of the Community Foundation

November 24, 2010

TO: Ellen Lehman, Community Foundation of Middle TN

FM: Jay Voorhees, an observer along the way

RE: WSMV story tonight

Dear Ellen,

I’ve been watching the series this week by Dennis Ferrier of WSMV regarding flood relief efforts with interest. As you know the group that I have worked with along the way, Southeast Nashville Recovery, has been involved in these efforts from the earliest days, and have walked with you as we have attempted to address the needs of our community. It’s been a tough road, with bumps along the way, and yet I know that all of us are working as best we are able to alleviate the suffering of our neighbors throughout the region.

I understand the frustration expressed by some of our neighbors in the story, and confess that I too fell prey to some of those feelings in the early days, when all of us were struggling to find the resources needed to address the early stages of the recovery. However as we’ve been engaged in this work we too have learned that our recovery efforts are indeed a marathon effort, not a sprint, and that we must be careful stewards of that which has been entrusted to us so that it is used both wisely and broadly.

One of the problems that I think has not been communicated well is the breadth of the destruction and the amount of fund truly needed for rebuilding. To most of us, $8 million dollars seems like a lot of money. And in our desire to honor our donors we have sometimes fallen pray to lifting up the size of these gifts. And yet, let’s assume that only half of the over 2,000 homes damaged in Nashville in the flood need assistance with their rebuild efforts. Given the averages we’ve seen so far of $10,000 per home, that adds up to $10 million dollars, a figure that assumes no administrative costs in offering assistance. The fact is that cost of full recovery for this flood well exceeds the moneys donated so far, so it’s understandable that you want to be careful in how that money is allocated.

And yet, in spite of the innuendo of the stories this week, you have in fact been engaged in helping average Nashvillians in all sorts of ways. I have seen this first hand through the work of the 8 Days of Hope effort this week, a project sponsored by area faith groups which you have supported through a grant of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those moneys have been used to provide the materials used by over 1,100 volunteers this week in putting up drywall, replacing flooring, and all the other tasks required to restore homes back to livable conditions. Without the support of the Community Foundation these 1,100 persons would be twiddling their thumbs, wanting to help but unable to do much without supplies. At the end of the week, it is likely that 100’s of homes will be further on the way toward recovery, and this could not have happened without the support of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

Seven months after the flood it is expected that some will be disillusioned with the pace of recovery efforts. Our culture is not known for patience, and the degree of stress and difficulty is great, leading some to lash out in their need to get back to normality as quickly as possible. However I know that is your goal as well. Your organization has clearly wanted to get help to the folks that need it as quickly as possible, and I applaud what you have been doing, recognizing that care must be taken to avoid squandering funds for additional needs that arise.

That is something else that Dennis and others may not understand. As crazy as it sounds we are still discovering folks in need that have slipped through all the cracks of those organizations offering assistance. Just this week in the midst of the 8 Days of Hope project we have identified 70 new properties in need of assistance that have had no contact with any of the relief organizations. The fact is that help is indeed available — through your work and through the various organizations like Southeast Nashville Recovery, West Nashville Disaster Relief, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, North Nashville Flood Recovery, and of course, the Restore the Dream case management centers. But your ability and our ability to help is only possible when we are aware of the needs.

So thanks for what you have done so far, and thanks for what you will do in the future. You are in the unenviable position of trying to ensure that money is wisely spent in the face of great need, and as a result there will be some who will feel that their needs are not adequately addressed. Please know that I continue to stand with you, knowing that your hearts are committed to helping the most people possible with the resources our neighbors have entrusted to you.

Grace and peace to you in the work ahead,

Jay

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Rutledge permalink
    November 25, 2010 6:24 pm

    Jay,

    My name is Brian Rutledge and my wife and I were interviewed by Dennis for this story. I’m writing because I take issue with a few of the statements made in your post.

    First off, I would like to say thank your involvement with SE Nashville Recovery. I’m unfamiliar with the group, but I can say that the efforts of many Nashvillians from across the city were invaluable to us through the first months of the flood recovery. Our flooded home was in River Plantation, and it felt like the whole city was there offering a hand in the aftermath.

    As for Ellen Lehman and the community foundation, I understand that they have been put in an impossible situation. No matter what they do, they will draw fire from someone. I don’t believe for a second that anyone at the Community Foundation has anything but the best of intentions in the work that they do.

    With that being said, I would like to respond to some of the statements in your post:

    I would first like to restate what Dennis said that the recovery effort is, in fact, a sprint. We are currently renting a home, in addition to paying the mortgage on our worthless home. If the recovery is a Marathon, then that’s a race we will lose to attrition. Our savings are gone, we were denied by SBA, and as the interviewed stated We Are Home (going by ludicrous Federal Guidelines) denied us the grant and 0% loan based on the fact that we have no debt. Our lack of debt is not due to any financial windfall, rather it was a decision made by my wife and I to never borrow money. If we can’t pay cash for something, then we will have to do without. We’re Dave Ramsey listeners (big surprise).

    We are receiving rental assistance from FEMA, and a considerable sum in the form of a grant( although its less than 1/3 of what we needed). However, the nightmare of dealing with a federal agency can only be understood by someone who has been through it. Before the flood I would have scoffed at someone complaining about the hassle of getting free money from the government, but now having been through it, it can take a toll on your family relationships, mental health, and general well being. Furthermore, the amount of the grants received can best be described as “random”. We know of victims who lived on the same street, in the same size condo, with the same income being rewarded nearly twice what we were given, from FEMA and We Are Home. It simply makes no sense. If we have no faith in administrators, then this is why.

    Your use of the terms “lashing out” and not “understanding” are somewhat disheartening from my perspective. I doubt this is what you meant, but it seems to imply that we are poor, scared, simple people biting the hand that feeds us. I admit that I am biased and probably overly-sensitive to some comments about the flood. However, I can assure you that we do understand very well the depth of the destruction. I have several photos of our street in the aftermath that look more like a war-zone than a suburban neighborhood, with everyone’s cherished belongings in a pile in the front yard. If we are “lashing out” its because we have been denied by almost every organization we have applied to for varying reasons. Each time we are denied we are told that we can appeal, and those subsequent appeals lead to more mountains of paperwork, and 0 gains. Or we are given insulting reasons for the denial. I take particular issue with the statement “Our culture is not known for patience”. Patience is a luxury that we can not afford as we are quickly being bankrupted. Please do not dismiss our frustration so easily.

    Now to Ms. Lehman. I was unaware of her or the Community Foundation before Dennis’s report. I must say I am less than satisfied after seeing her interview, or even downright infuriated. I believe there is absolutely no defense in the CF holding 1/3 of the donated money 6 months after the flood. Her explanation that it must be kept for the next problem that comes up is puzzling. Holding 10% in reserve might be reasonable, but not 30% The flood was 6 months ago! The damage is already done, and the need is there in full. If it takes this much time to vet each grant request, than perhaps some of the future funds might be better invested with another not-for-profit, to ease that burden so that the Community Foundation might be able to expedite the distribution of the remaining 1/3 of Donations. As for those “falling through the cracks” you saw several examples of them in Dennis’s report. That is precisely what the report was about, those who have fallen through the cracks. Holding those donations is helping no one. Beyond the one example shown in the report, Dennis discussed with us during the interview, several foundations that were denied a grant for materials, even though they were providing free labor.

    This may be once again victim’s bias, but it feels like a lot of the organizations who have received grants are not publicizing it very well. They have their own “constituents” (for lack of a better word), who are their first priority. After dealing with FEMA/SBA/We are Home we are exhausted in doing research, and do not expect a positive outcome. If every time you got to the well, you pull up an empty bucket, why continue going to the well?

    My impetus in writing this was her comments and demeanor throughout the interview. In my own opinion, she seemed bitter, and sullen that she was having to defend herself, not compassionate . I’m sorry but as the “steward” of these donations she will have to answer to Nashville.

    We’ve already disagreed on the sprint/marathon comment which I thought was flat-out wrong, but her last comment was absolutely offensive, and I’m guessing she greatly regrets saying it at this point. That comment being “One of the interesting things about this particular disaster, is that most of the folks who were affected by this disaster have always stood on their own two feet. They have no interest in asking for help”. This garnered an audible reaction from my wife and I. After going to We Are Home, who is invested in by the Community Foundation, with our hat in hand and being denied because we’ve always stood on our own two feet, we now have to listen to Ms Lehman say that they still have a huge portion of the money because we have no interest in asking for it. I would invite Ms Lehman to walk door to door through my empty neighborhood and see how many of those “folks” have asked for help. This is not the type of thing I want to hear from the main disperser of money.

    I would like to point out there are several Nashvillians who would hold Dennis Ferrier in the same esteem that you hold Ms Lehman. I don’t believe there was any “innuendo” in the reporting, he came right out and said it.

    Jay, once again thank you for your assistance to the flood victims, and getting the word out about the organizations in place to help those victims. I hope my tone was not overly negative, and I do think you made some very valid points, especially about the difficulty in the deficit between what was donated and what is needed . However, I believe that some of your arguments implied that our complaints were merely the result of impatience and anger.

    Thank you for allowing me to disagree and good luck to you in the future.
    -Brian Rutledge

    • November 25, 2010 10:13 pm

      Dear Brian,
      Thanks for your well articulated and thoughtful comments. Please understand that I indeed am not writing off your concerns as emotional screeds without justification. You are well justified in asking the questions that you are asking. While I sometimes find Dennis’s reporting on the sensational and negative side (which may have colored my comments) you are right in sharing the truth of your story, which unfortunately is similar to many in our city. And I very much appreciate your perspective that the Community Foundation is in an impossible situation. Given the ease by which they can be made a target, it was my intention to recognize the good they have done and will continue to do in the future.

      The difference in understanding flood recovery either as a sprint or a marathon is based in conversations that I and others have had with experts in dealing with flood recovery in other cities. I agree completely and have experienced that the needs are great and immediate and it seems logical that resources would be allocated as quickly as possible. In the early weeks of relief efforts I found myself critical at what seemed to be delays in the allocation of funds. I couldn’t imagine what was holding up helping people in horrific situations. I believed and continue to be believe that we need to work as quickly as possible to get help to survivors. And yet the experts from all sorts of groups that have been engaged in similar efforts along the Gulf Coast, Cedar Rapids, Atlanta, and other cities, continued to caution patience, using the marathon analogy. They told us that we could expect as much as a year of recovery work for each week of relief efforts, and given that we were engaged in basic relief efforts over a three week period, we continue to believe that we are far from nearing the end of the recovery work in Nashville. This is work that needs to be a sprint, but long experience suggests that the finish line continues to move farther and farther away. That doesn’t ease your pain nor address your justified frustration — it only exacerbates it at many levels — and yet the longer we’ve been involved in this the more real it seems.

      Is the process flawed in many ways? Absolutely, and we all need to continue to seek resolution to those issues. There was an over dependence in the early days to depend on existing agencies that had little experience in flood relief efforts. The ability of the Restore the Dream Centers (created and funded by the United Way) to effective case management has been hit or miss, with some centers being more effective than others in offering needed assistance. The We Are Home program was indeed lifted up by the Mayor and others as “the solution” to dealing with those displaced by the floods without a clear explanation of the limitations of that program (to their credit, We Are Home is starting to make connections with the non-governmental groups regarding assistance for those rejected by the program). Many of these issues are far outside the ability of the Community Foundation to address, and really gets to problems in coordinating the long term recovery efforts across Davidson County. There are many of us that are trying to address these issues, so that the Community Foundation has effective partners in offering assistance to those in need. The Community Foundation is at best a bank — a place to safely store funds until they are needed. They have neither the charge nor the ability to directly give money to people in need. I have opinions on our failings in creating an effective recovery effort, but at this point in time sharing them would be more problematic than helpful.

      I am very sorry about your situation, which from what I know about the River Plantation situation is more fraught with difficulty than in other places. I have family that lost their homes in River Plantation and spent four years serving that community as one of the pastors of the United Methodist Church on Old Harding Pike. I am old enough to remember the floods in the 1970′s when I stood on Old Harding and saw the Harpeth spread for miles before me. You have every right to be hurt, angry, pissed off, and screaming for every bit of help you can receive. And, if there is some way that I can connect you with someone that you haven’t contacted to look at how you can get back in your home as quickly as possible. I wish I could snap my fingers and make that happen tomorrow, but we both know that is a pipe dream. But know that there are many of us throughout our city that want to get you back home as soon as possible.

      Thanks again for your comments,
      Jay

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