An outpouring of donations and pledges after the April tornadoes raised about $3.5 million for disaster relief that was designated to be spent in the tri-state area.
Four months later, about $2.6 million has been spent, primarily on short-term needs such as food, shelter and supplies immediately after the storms, with some money spent more recently for home repairs and rebuilding.
But some donations designated for Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama communities devastated by the tornadoes may not have been spent in the area -- and may not have been used for tornado relief at all -- a Chattanooga Times Free Press analysis of donations and subsequent spending found.
And $50,000 in gift cards donated immediately after the storms remains largely unspent and did not go to the county for which the gift cards were designated, local volunteers say.
Of the about $1 million still unspent, most of the money is in the hands of long-term recovery committees who say it will be used in the next few months to help families rebuild and refurnish their homes, unmet needs that may top $4 million or $5 million.
Committee members hope to stretch those dollars by using donated supplies and labor when possible. But they also say, with donations drying to a trickle in recent months, they desperately need more money in the coming months as the rebuilding process picks up steam.
To assess how donated money was spent after the storms, the Times Free Press collected information from a dozen nonprofit agencies, including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the United Way, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, the Lyndhurst Foundation, Metropolitan Ministries and the long-term committees formed since the tornadoes. Five committees working in six counties in the tri-state area have formed to assess unmet needs and coordinate long-term rebuilding efforts.
The numbers do not reflect countless donations made to local churches, businesses and smaller nonprofit organizations.
Long-term recovery committees and nonprofit agencies provided fairly specific numbers for donations raised and how those donations were used after the storms. Exactly how much money was donated is difficult to assess, because some agencies such as the United Way provided funding to the Red Cross and other organizations, while some donations were made directly to those organizations.
The numbers show the outpouring of local support for victims in the tri-state area where dozens of tornadoes wreaked havoc on April 27, the worst disaster the area has seen in decades. Eighty people were killed, hundreds of homes were ripped from their foundations and thousands more damaged by the vicious winds.
Those involved in the tri-state recovery effort said various agencies worked together closely to provide the best assistance possible.
"It was a collective effort," said Jamie Bergmann, a vice president with United Way who has worked in the area for 30 years. The United Way provides funding to many of the agencies involved in the tornadoes and helped coordinate relief efforts in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
Bergmann added, "This was probably one of the bigger disasters we've had; it was just so far-reaching. We discovered as a community that it takes everyone coming together."
In recent years, the practice of earmarking donated funds to be used in certain disasters or for particular needs such as furniture or food has become common.
But donors should be aware that the Red Cross does not guarantee it will spend that money in the designated area or even for a particular disaster, Chattanooga Red Cross spokeswoman Claudia Moore said.
Since the organization does not provide long-term disaster relief, it cannot use the money for rebuilding purposes, she said. In addition, the organization always has said that money donated for a particular disaster may be spent elsewhere if it is needed, she said.
"We try to honor donor intent, but sometimes the response is overwhelming," Moore said. "We try to educate people on how their money will be spent should it exceed the amount needed in a disaster."
Willie Quinn walks through the frames of her new home. Volunteers from Southern Adventist University and the Apison area continue work on Marvin and Willie Quinn's new home in Apison. The Quinns, whose home was destroyed in an April tornado, are currently living in a small travel trailer on the same property.Photo by Jake Daniels.
Moore said it is rare that the agency receives more designated funding than is spent in a disaster. For example, the Alabama Red Cross spent more than $15 million after the tornadoes while receiving only about $12 million.
The Chattanooga Red Cross spent $558,000 after the storms, but was not able to provide information on how much money was raised locally or earmarked to be spent in the Chattanooga area. Statewide, the Tennessee Red Cross received $2 million for tornado and flooding victims and spent $2.1 million.
Moore said designated funds are earmarked for a county and stay in that county if possible. But the money may be used for restocking supplies or repairing vehicles if it is not needed for disaster relief. The money also may be used for other disasters, she said.
In some events, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Red Cross receives more donations than it spends, she said.
"It is just a matter of when, not if, we will respond to another disaster," she said.
Local volunteers working in Dade County also have noted that Tractor Supply donated $50,000 in gift cards to the Red Cross of Northwest Georgia in the early days after the storm. The cards were designated to be spent in Dade County and Northwest Alabama, they said.
Those cards, which could have been put to use immediately after the storm for tools, repair supplies and power equipment from Tractor Supply, have not yet been given to victims, Dade County workers said.
But Georgia Red Cross spokesman Ruben Brown said the cards were designated for tornado clients throughout Georgia, not just in Dade and Jackson counties. Some of the cards have been distributed to those affected by the storms and the rest will be used during the long-term recovery phase, Brown said. He did not say how many haven't been spent yet.
One national agency, the Salvation Army, guarantees that it will spend the donations it receives on the disaster for which they were designated, local spokeswoman Kimberly George said.
"That is what sets us apart," she said. "If it is designated for that area, it has to stay there."
Since the storms, the Salvation Army spent $325,475 for disaster relief in the tri-state area and raised $292,853 from local donations. George said the regional Salvation Army has pledged to spend an additional $1.2 million for ongoing disaster relief.
George said none of the money designated in a disaster is spent for national overhead or operating expenses; every penny goes to pay for local needs, local salaries and local operating expenses.
One nationally known expert in disaster relief said the issue is earmarking funds, not whether an agency spends it in the area for which it has been designated. Saundra Schimmelpfennig, who has spent more than 20 years working as a volunteer, staff member or board member on nonprofits, said she would like donors to stop the practice of earmarking funds.
"Donating to a general fund is better," Schimmelpfennig said. "You can get too much money for a specific cause."
Schimmelpfennig runs the website Good Intentions are Not Enough to provide information to donors about such organizations.
Some disasters receive lots of media attention -- and lots of resulting donations -- while others receive almost none, she said. And when money is earmarked for medical supplies or food, those may not be the categories with the most need.
On the other hand, Schimmelpfennig said donors need to be aware of an organization's mission or operating practices. If they want money to be used for rebuilding purposes, they should make sure they do not donate to a group that provides only immediate assistance.
Most of the money spent so far went for immediate needs in the days and weeks after the storm. The Red Cross, Salvation Army and local agencies provided meals, shelter, personal kits, rental assistance and supplies. Those same agencies have chipped in to help with immediate repairs or replace items damaged or destroyed by the storms.
The rest of the money spent has gone to more long-term recovery needs such as rebuilding homes and toward replenishing supplies for another disaster.
"When disasters strike, the Red Cross is on the ground immediately; we worry about raising funds to pay for the relief effort after we are already responding," Moore said.
The donations came from corporations such as Volkswagen, which gave $100,000; businesses, foundations and private donors. The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga received the most money, with donations of $1.3 million. Some of that money was from large private donations, but some amounts were as small as $14, President Peter Cooper said.
One of the donors was Jason Webb, owner of Webb Dentistry in Ringgold. Webb raised $5,700 from his patients after promising that his office would match any donations. Together, they gave more than $11,000 to the Catoosa County long-term recovery committee.
The money poured in from the community, Webb said. An 8-year-old donated all his birthday money -- $150. Grandparents donated in honor of their grandchildren.
"It was very rewarding, to know that you did something positive in the face of all this devastation," Webb said. "We just wanted to help our little county."
Webb said he had never donated a significant amount to a disaster, so he carefully researched different agencies before making the donation to the committee.
"I wanted to make sure the money would go to residents of Catoosa County; we wanted it spent here," Webb said.
THE LEARNING CURVE
Although much of the initial response to the tornadoes was coordinated through federal and local emergency management groups and national agencies, each county has taken a slightly different approach to how it has allocated funds and moved toward the rebuilding phase.
All the counties hit hardest by the tornadoes -- Bradley, Hamilton, Catoosa, Dade, Jackson and DeKalb -- have local long-term recovery committees that use donations to manage cases and allocate money for repairs and rebuilding.
Shortly after the storms, Bradley County and Cleveland officials decided to put all their money into one fund, which is housed under United Way and now exceeds $300,000.
"It is not part of our regular budget, but a separate account to fund uninsured losses," said Matt Ryerson, who is with United Way and involved with long-term recovery. The money will be spent under the direction of the long-term recovery committee.
So far, the Bradley County fund has spent the lowest percentage of money raised, only about $16,000 of more than $348,000 given. Ryerson said the group is poised to begin several large rebuilding efforts.
The group has waited until victims receive insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency settlements so it has a better idea of what the needs are, Ryerson said.
"It is an exciting time in that the government bureaucracy is finally out of the way and we can now jump into the work of serving our neighbors and meeting their remaining unmet needs," he said.
Schimmelpfennig said she believes setting up one fund provides an advantage in administering money and making sure it is used efficiently.
"After all disasters, there should be a centralized fund," she said. "It is used as needed, and the organization with the best advertising campaign or the worst disaster pictures isn't getting the most money."
The disadvantage is that the money might not be distributed to victims quite as quickly, or one agency may not like the way money is distributed, she said.
David Patty, who heads the Sand Mountain Long Term Recovery Committee, with members from both Jackson and DeKalb counties, said his group struggles with being in a rural area with little national media coverage. The area doesn't have large foundations or even a local United Way.
"But we have a lot of different agencies and all these various denominations working together," Patty said. "We are an all-volunteer organization with no staff or administration costs."
While overall relief efforts went well, Bergmann, with the United Way, said the biggest lesson is the need to coordinate and pool resources with other organizations. That way, when a disaster happens, agencies can work together to respond quickly.
The second lesson was to attempt to focus more on long-term recovery efforts.
"Resources are scarce and it is hard to plan for it, but disaster recovery takes a long time," she said. "The immediate response is everyone wants to jump in. But even though it was four months ago, the disaster is still big. We still need volunteers and donations."
About $1 million in funds. Unmet needs of $4 million to $5 million. Despite nonprofits' appreciation for the millions of dollars in donations, those are the stark numbers that members of long-term recovery committees face every day.
Those numbers also are the reason organizations such as the Community Foundation have doled out their donations sparingly.
"While you don't want to drag your feet, you have to reach the much larger, long-range efforts to help," Cooper said. "It will never be normal for people who lost everything, but you want to make it as close to normal as possible. And we haven't had any donations [for disaster relief] come in a long time."
There are small fundraisers planned, but so far the tri-state area has not held a large fundraiser.
The committees say they are stretching their dollars with donated supplies and volunteer labor as much as they can. So far, most groups have rebuilding projects scheduled far into the fall.
When asked what his group needs, Patty said, "Prayers." Then he adds, "And donations. We will spend every penny on rebuilding supplies."
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...