BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (April 21) — During a meeting of local citizens at the McWherter Civic Center on Thursday, April 21, Dresden Mayor Jeff Washburn and City Recorder Jennifer Branscum spoke with local property owners, concerning the status of their properties, which were heavily damaged by the December 10, 2021, tornado. They sought to learn what the property owners’ plans are regarding debris removal, as well as repairing or demolishing their damaged homes. They also provided information about the availability of tornado relief.
The property owners were mailed notices requesting they attend the meeting. However, according to Dresden City Recorder Jennifer Branscum, the meeting was not a condemnation hearing, and the city is not seeking to condemn these properties, at this time. The purpose of the meeting was to get an update whether the owners have insurance, or if they have plans to clean up, repair or demolish their properties.
Property Damage Cleanup
Mayor Washburn provided information and answered questions regarding the public assistance available to property owners to repair or rebuild their residences.
The mayor explained that the procedures for receiving FEMA funding must be strictly followed in order to receive assistance. He stressed the need for property owners to move storm debris to the edge of the street for pickup. However, he stated FEMA regulations prohibit equipment from coming onto private property, and requires debris to be placed within 15 feet of the street for pickup and removal.
Property belonging to Roger and Stephanie Miller of 616 Taylor St. was discussed by Stephanie’s father, Daryl Plunk of 220 East Main St., who spoke on their behalf. “I haven’t done anything to it,” Plunk said. “Four of the windows are damaged; the garage is damaged; and a tree is turned over. I was told to leave it alone, but it could be made presentable in a couple or three days.”
Mayor Washburn said, “It doesn’t have a tremendous amount of damage, but as you say, it has a tree down.”
In order to assist the Millers and other local citizens clean up their properties, cut up trees, or move debris to the curb, the mayor stated volunteer help has been available since December 11, including volunteers with track-hoes.
Plunk also inquired about regulations regarding burning debris.
The mayor stated brush, trees and other vegetative materials can be burned on the property, after picking up a free burn permit at city hall. However, he stressed that burning construction debris is not allowed.
“A lot of people don’t understand why we’re not picking up stuff on the side of the road yet,” Mayor Washburn said. “Ask FEMA why. The answer is going to be, they’re going to have to review our contracts and make sure they meet their specifications.
“We have to get a monitoring contractor to monitor the cleanup and see what’s picked up at each location, make a note of that, and take pictures of it,” Mayor Washburn said. “FEMA must have that in order to reimburse the City of Dresden for the cost of the cleanup. FEMA is going to reimburse us for 90 percent of the cleanup cost. The city will be responsible for 5 percent and the State of Tennessee will be responsible for the remaining 5 percent of the cost.”
The mayor explained the reason there haven’t been a lot of responses to Dresden’s requests for bid proposals is because the larger construction debris monitoring contractor companies want to work with the larger towns. “There’s not a huge amount of money to be made here; but, we’ll get somebody.” Since Thursday night’s meeting, the city had to extend the construction debris monitor bid to this Friday, due to no bids being received.
When asked about deadlines, Mayor Washburn said, “We realize it’s going to take some time to get things settled. We realize it’s going to take people some time to get things moved and straightened up. We have not set any deadlines. I would expect it will probably be a while after FEMA is done cleaning up in town.”
Ben Johnson stated he has pushed his debris out to the street to be picked up, and only has a small amount of cleanup left to do. When he inquired about the status of his property, Mayor Washburn stated Johnson’s residence is livable and, therefore, is not on the list.
“If you did not receive a letter, there is not a problem as far as the city is concerned,” Mayor Washburn said. “You have a house that is habitable. Hopefully, in another few weeks, the cleanup contractor is going to start coming around and picking that up.
“They’ll probably begin picking up debris around the Dresden 4×4 and Automotive Center and come on into town. The contractor will pick up everything impacted by the tornado in other areas, before continuing out toward Palmersville. They’ll pick up your stuff on the side of the street in about three weeks. We thought it would be sooner, but it hasn’t worked out that way.”
Johnson said, “Big wheels turn slow sometimes.”
The mayor replied, “Yes, particularly when you’re dealing with FEMA.”
Bob Spelling, who has two properties on the list, said he plans on tearing down his house at 455 Taylor St. and cleaning up his property located at 439 Taylor St.
A local homeowner stated there is a huge tree in her yard that was damaged in the storm and needs to be taken down, but it’s underneath an electrical power line. She noted, if the tree falls the wrong way, it would land on her house, after just having her roof replaced. When she asked who would be able to take down the large tree, Mayor Washburn commented Weakley County Municipal Electric System crews are one of the best sources to take down large trees.
A member of the audience stated WCMES will cut the power to the wires and turn it back on after the tree is removed at no charge to the customer.
The tree will have to be cut up from the top, down. This can be accomplished with a bucket truck, or by a climber working for a tree removal service.
Keith Kemp, who owns properties at 147 and 151 West Main St., stated he has contacted his insurance company, and is making arrangements to get his lots cleaned up.
Concerning debris removal, the mayor noted if it were up to him and the city board, it would have already started. He said, “We have to play by FEMA’s rules, because they’re going to have to pay for the cleanup; and, it looks like that cleanup is going to cost $1 million, plus.”
“We have 220,000 yards of debris that’s going to have to be hauled off; and the average cost is $220 per cubic yard.”
Quality Contractor Services headquartered in Milan, which submitted a project proposal for hauling the debris to an approved landfill at a cost of $50 per ton, was awarded the contract.
“Our cleanup contractor is waiting for FEMA to say ‘go.’ We’re waiting on getting a monitoring contractor to monitor what the cleanup contractor picks up. Again – it’s FEMA’s rules. We have to play by those rules, or they’re not going to pay us 90 percent of the cost of the million dollars. If it costs $1 million to clean it up, FEMA is going to pay $900,000 of it; the State of Tennessee is going to pay $50,000 of it, and it will be up to the City of Dresden to pay the remaining $50,000.
“As soon as FEMA gives us the go ahead, we’re going to push like crazy to remove the debris sitting in your front yard. They’re probably going to make three passes through town. After they make the first pass, they’ll probably wait two or three weeks before making a second pass.” He stated there is so much debris at some locations that it’s farther than 15 feet from the curb, so the property owners will need time to move more debris to the curb before the cleanup contractor makes another pass. All clean up must be completed by August 14.”
When asked about disposing of damaged household items, the mayor stated these items may be placed by the street or in the dumpsters on Moore Street adjacent to the water plant.
Individual Recovery Assistance
Mayor Washburn stated United Methodist Committee on Relief is the only authorized firm the city has entered into an informal agreement with, to provide individual assistance to property owners and persons impacted by the tornado. “UMCOR will be doing the long-term recovery, and a lot of different things, serving as an advisor to our Long-Term Recovery Group,” the mayor said.
“UMCOR has not yet started taking applications, but there are a couple of people that will be chairing the Long-Term Recovery Group. The first is Justin Crice, who may be contacted at the Weakley County Chamber of Commerce or through the Weakley County Economic Development Office. The other person serving on the committee is Alicia Melton.” These two individuals volunteered to co-chair the recovery group.
According to Mayor Washburn, the long-term recovery plan includes free individual assistance, as far as homes and living arrangements are concerned. “I understand they’re possibly even going to rebuild some homes. It’s going to be just a little bit before they get started.”
Mayor Washburn stated that those property owners who applied for an SBA loan, but were turned down, or were approved for a loan, but felt like they would not be able to repay the loan, have a good chance to receive assistance from the Long-Term Recovery Group.
Mayor Washburn stated, contrary to information being spread around town, he is not a member of that group. “The county mayor and I sit as ex-officio members of that committee, but we have no vote. We have no authority to make any decisions in regard to who gets loans.”
Branscum said, “You still need to apply to the Long-Term Recovery Group, even if you applied to FEMA and SBA before.”
A member of the audience asked, “Why would an individual homeowner be required to apply for a Small Business Administration loan, unless it is a rental property?”
Mayor Washburn replied, “Because they make loans to individual homeowners, and the Small Business Administration is a government lending agency. It’s not a bank. If you get turned down, there are alternatives available. If they make you an offer for a loan and you don’t feel like it is something that you could make the payment on, or the terms were not good, you could turn it down. It’s my understanding there is no penalty if you turn it down. But, they generally want to see if you can help yourself and for everybody to own their own recovery if possible. If you can’t own your recovery, the Long-Term Recovery Group will offer you assistance.”
Plunk said UMC tries to weed out those who do not have a right to apply for a loan, and help those who need assistance.
Mayor Washburn stated those who have attempted to make their own repairs, but have run out of money, and there are still things that need to be fixed, are still eligible to receive assistance through UMCOR.
“We’re not talking about money that you are going to have to repay. It involves free labor and materials.”
“It is also possible to receive free furniture. We have been told that we are probably going to be the recipient of enough furniture to fill 20 three-bedroom houses, and we have been told to look for a warehouse space to store it until it is needed. We already know that FEMA is going to be sending us some lumber that’s housed in Florida, where they have a big demand for it for hurricanes and things. That’s going to be used to rebuild homes. There are other building materials coming, as well, to assist folks.”
The mayor stated the process involves applying for an insurance claim and Red Cross assistance, then, applying for FEMA assistance and being turned down (initially and upon appeal). Only after all of these steps have been taken, is the property owner eligible to receive assistance through UMCOR. One of the services provided by UMCOR is assisting property owners with appealing to FEMA.
According to Mayor Washburn, UMCOR is currently in the process of training local people to be caseworkers.
The mayor introduced Mike Carroll, who is a citizen volunteer, serving on the Long Term Recovery Group, which determines where the recovery funding goes.
“Let me tell you a little bit about the application process for long-term recovery,” Mayor Washburn said. “When you fill out an application, your name is not going to be on it. You are going to be issued a number. The group that decides on those applications will not have any information about you personally. It’s going to be blind decision making, as far as who the applicant is. They’re going to decide who gets grants, money and assistance, based solely on need.
“If you’ve tried everything else, and are not receiving assistance, but you still have a need that is not met, they will try to provide you with assistance of some kind. It may not be as much as you want, but it also might be more then what you thought you would receive. It’s going to be based upon what they determine your need is.”
The mayor stated, if an applicant applies for less money than what the committee thinks they will need to make repairs, the committee could give the applicant additional money.
Besides governmental funding provided for disaster relief, Dresden has received several private donations. One of the donations received was $100,000 from the City of Cookeville and Putnam County. “When they heard we had a tornado here, they reopened their Disaster Relief Fund from a couple of years ago when they had a tornado and took new donations,” Mayor Washburn said. “They gave $100,000 to Dresden; $100,000 to the City of Mayfield; and $40,000 to Kenton.
All donations from individuals and groups totaled over $700,000. “These funds have been donated for long-term recovery,” Mayor Washburn said.
The mayor stated, although the City of Dresden served as the conduit for a couple of donations, these funds were not given to the city. The money was donated to the Long-Term Recovery Group, which will disburse the funds to help the people of Dresden in need of assistance.
The money will be used to: help homeowners who might not have had adequate insurance; provide renters with assistance getting established in a rental unit; and people who may have immediate personal needs such as food or other things.
“Be the Village is still providing assistance, as well,” Mayor Washburn said. He noted the non-profit, is headed by Sandra Taylor. “They have done an amazing job meeting those needs. Since December 11, they have helped a lot of people.” The website is: https://www.facebook.com/groups/bethevillagedresden/
For help with FEMA and any of the other agencies regarding disaster relief, visit the Tornado Recovery Center, located at: Weakley County Personal Development Center, 8250 Highway 22, Dresden, TN 38225.
“There were other donations given specifically to the city of Dresden, which will be used to assist the city in its recovery,” Mayor Washburn said. “But, it’s less than $50,000. There is a separate allocations committee for these funds.”
Regarding recovery assistance, Mrs. Pence, whose home was located on Hillcrest Street said, “My house is totally gone. We’ve had denials and no help from FEMA.”
“When I thought about people in this community, you and your husband immediately came to mind as being excellent candidates for long-term recovery assistance. I’m hoping that’s where you’re going to find your help rebuilding your home.”
The mayor said the goal of the Long-Term Recovery Group “is to put people back into the position they were in before the tornado struck.”
Mayor Washburn stated there will be a whole lot more assistance available through the Long-Term Recovery Group with “less bureaucratic red tape.”
A local resident, whose home is located on the corner of East Maple and Cedar streets, stated his house was determined to be a total loss by his insurance company, due to its age, not because of storm damage. But, he is in the process of repairing it and is currently installing new siding and windows. When he asked if his house was being considered to be condemned, Mayor Washburn informed him his property is not on the list for possible condemnation.
Another property owner stated her insurance company declared her house to be uninhabitable, but she is still living there. The mayor informed her that her house is not considered to be uninhabitable by the City of Dresden and is, therefore, not on the list.
“If you need assistance, later on, give us a call, we will try to direct you to where you can get assistance,” Mayor Washburn said.
As explained in previous meetings, if a dilapidated property is in need of remodeling or demolition, the Dresden Condemnation Board provides the owner with a notice of condemnation and meets with them. A building inspector evaluates the property, and if it the structure is not beyond saving, a list of items that need to be corrected are provided to the owner. The property owner is given adequate time to initiate and complete repairs, before being fined or any legal action is taken.
Mayor Washburn said, “Condemnation proceedings have gone for two years, or longer, as the city works with people to get their property fixed up. It’s not a race to see how fast we tear things down. We’re just trying to find out how they’re going to get things repaired and the intent of the property owners. Do they need help getting demolition to take place? Because we had some volunteers here with track hoes tearing down houses left and right. They’ll help anybody with demolition at no cost.”
Problems with Contractors
Local citizens expressed concern over property owners being duped by unlicensed or fraudulent companies.
Stacey Williams asked, “If you hired a contractor, and they haven’t turned out very well, who do you contact?”
“I would go see an attorney,” the mayor said. “You might want to contact West Tennessee Legal Services. They’re assisting people at no charge in such cases. You could also contact the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, which regulates contractors. But, I dare say, the contractor that you’re dealing with is probably not a licensed contractor.”
Ongoing Repairs and Rebuilding
Concerning the repairs and rebuilding under way in Dresden, Mayor Washburn said, “Part of the problem with the recovery here in Dresden is the lack of skilled tradesmen.” He noted, although there are several good contractors locally, because there are so many structures in need of repair, more contractors are needed.
“One of the good things I’m hearing is there are new houses in the process of being built here in our community,” Mayor Washburn said. “Over the past 10 years or so, we’ve had about three homes built here in Dresden; right now, we have about three houses under construction and there are going to be a lot more in the days ahead.
“In a week or so, Kountry Korner is going to begin construction of their new building. Across the road from there, we’re going to have a Quick-Stop. Gleason Lumber Company has bought the old Fred’s building and is in the process of converting it to a lumber and hardware store. Keith Kemp purchased the Vaughn Brothers Hardware property and is going to open a business at that location. A couple is opening a meat market. It’s going to take a while for some others to reopen their businesses, but from what I’m hearing, we’re going to be plus on businesses here in Dresden. The Chopping Block Restaurant and Donnie Essary’s Automotive have already rebuilt and re-opened their businesses at the former locations.
“I think our future is really brighter in Dresden than what we might realize, because there are some good things going on and we’re going to build our city back better than what it was. I feel like our community is going to be stronger than what it was.”