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3 years after 2020 tornadoes, the Community Foundation says it knows where millions of dollars in relief went

Hal Cato, President of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee
Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee
March 2020 tornadoes
Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee tornado response website
Posted at 6:25 PM, Mar 02, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Three years ago, a line of tornadoes left behind a path of death and destruction in Middle Tennessee. Almost immediately, donations started pouring in to help the survivors.

Anytime there is a disaster, whether it's a tornado, flooding, or even the downtown Christmas day bombing, the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has been quick to jump in and collect donations from generous Tennesseans who want to help.

Last summer, NewsChannel 5 Investigates exposed how the organization in charge of distributing the money had no idea where a lot of it ended up and how it was being spent.

The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee now has a new president who says the organization plans to make changes following our investigation.

After the March 2020 tornadoes, the Community Foundation took in more than $12.5 million in donations.

But last summer, more than two years after the tornadoes, NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered the Foundation couldn't account for where all that money had gone.

We asked Amy Fair then who oversaw the disaster aid distribution for the CFMT, "You don’t have a handle on how or even if all of it was spent?"

She did not.

Fair told us last June, "We are still in recovery."

Now, Hal Cato, the new CFMT president, concedes, "Yes, mistakes were made."

Cato joined the Community Foundation as its new president three months ago.

"Do you have a better handle on where the money was spent? Did it get to the right people?" we asked him.

"Yes, we do," Cato assured us.

Cato, has spent his life leading nonprofits, including Hands On Nashville, the Oasis Center, and, most recently, Thistle Farms.

He told us he was well aware of our investigation when he took this job.

"I do know that there’s been a lot of reflection since then about what we’ve learned and what we need to do different so that we are in a different position going forward," he explained.

We asked them about those changes.

"[We've been] looking at our own internal processes, and making sure that they are airtight," Cato said.

Last summer, you may recall, if you went to the Foundation's tornado response website, it showed the names of the organizations that had received grants, how much they got, and a very generic description in most cases of what it was to be used for.

But if you look at the tornado response website now, you'll find a lot more.

Last fall, the Foundation went back and asked all of the grant recipients to tell them how they'd spent their money helping tornado victims.

And, now if you click on each organization's name, you can now read their full report and see for yourself how they used your donations.

"From playgrounds to counseling, it just shows you just how diverse and broad the needs are of survivors after a disaster like this," Cato remarked.

You may remember during our initial investigation we discovered that right after the tornadoes, the Community Foundation sent $30,000 checks to dozens of organizations, including Metro Schools' Community Achieves program.

"They never asked for that money?" we asked the CFMT's Amy Fair last June.

"Correct," she confirmed.

But as we learned, not only did Community Achieves never ask for that money, no one with the organization even knew they'd received it until we asked about it and discovered that it had been sitting in a bank account untouched for more than two years.

"Yeah, we haven’t discovered anything else like that," Cato told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

"Nothing else like that?" we asked.

"Nothing else like that...That was just an anomaly, just an anomaly," Cato replied.

Since our initial reporting, Metro's Community Achieves program decided to return the money it received to the Community Foundation.

As did the Holly Street Daycare in East Nashville which also received one of those $30,000 checks that it had never requested.

"So do you think you’ll be doing things differently when the next disaster strikes?" we asked Cato.

"Absolutely. I think we will be a lot more proactive in terms of creating that paper trail that follows the money once it leaves this building into the recipients' hands and then documenting faster," he promised.

The Community Foundation took in more than $12.5 million dollars after the tornadoes, and last month still had more than $2.5 million dollars left in that fund.

According to Hal Cato, the Foundation's Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund committee met a couple of weeks ago to decide what to do with the remaining money.

The committee approved eight new requests, totaling $307,085.25, to support the repair/rebuild of homes for three survivors as well as to provide additional funding for services addressing needs from the March 2020 tornado, including mental health support.

Those grants include:

· Hands on Nashville: $14,500 for reimbursement for storage for tornado survivors displaced through home repair/construction;

· The Hope Station: $20,000 to replenish funds to for providing mental health counseling to tornado survivors;

· KEVA: $10,000 to replenish funds for providing financial support to North Nashville tornado survivors;

· Nashville Tree Conservation Corps: $15,000 for Operation Overstory tree replanting;

· St. Vincent de Paul Church: $10,000 to replenish funds for providing financial support to North Nashville tornado survivors;

· Westminster Home Connection: $127,582.25 for direct construction costs for one tornado survivor.

· Westminster Home Connection: $10,000 for direct construction costs for another tornado survivor. (Roof replacement);

· Westminster Home Connection: *Up to $100,000 for a direct construction project for a North Nashville survivor with major home-repair needs.

*Grant approved based on construction estimates but not yet distributed.

Cato also said the committee voted to establish and release a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the many houses of worship that continue to look for resources to fill a gap in funding that remains after receiving insurance payouts that were not enough to fully pay for repairs needed to meet city codes. That RFP will go out within the next two weeks with a 30-day deadline for submission. Funding approval will be determined by the committee.

If a balance remains in the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund once eligible houses of worship have been funded, the committee agreed to review a number of requests focused on preparing for future disasters.

PREVIOUS RELATED REPORTING:
NewsChannel 5 investigates what happened to the millions donated after the 2020 tornadoes

NewsChannel 5 investigation finds the Community Foundation has no idea how millions in 2020 tornado relief money was spent

Metro Nashville leaders question city's relationship with the Community Foundation

Tennessee lawmaker proposes bill to force charities to distribute disaster relief funds within two years