Salvation Army still holds millions in Joplin donations

They've turned the page in Joplin, Mo.

JOPLIN, Mo. - They've turned the page in Joplin, Mo.

"The city is growing," said former Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean. "Everybody's in a positive light."

Three years after the worst chapter in city history, there's new construction everywhere. But like the residents, the memories never rest.

The massive EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin on May 22, 2011 was one of the deadliest in US history, with 158 deaths and more than 1,100 people injured. Neighborhoods, schools, and communities were literally blown away.

"It was utter devastation," recalled Colbert-Kean. "I've never, ever in my short term in life so far experienced or seen anything like that."

And in the aftermath, residents will tell you they've never seen anything like the outpouring of support from people and organizations all over the world.

One of those groups, as you might expect, was the Salvation Army. According to their website, in the initial days after the Joplin tornado they fed up to 10,000 people a day.

"We try to do our very best. Our motto is doing the most good. We try to live up to that through our actions," explained Major Phillip Aho, the Salvation Army's general secretary in their Midland Division.

With millions of dollars pouring in through donations, the Salvation Army hired Callie Hudson as their director of development. She helped recruit a volunteer advisory board of leading Joplin citizens.

"I went on a kind of 90 day campaign around Joplin and spoke to as many people as I could talk to about the things that we were going to be doing at the Salvation Army," said Hudson.

It was the board's job to help decide how to best spend the relief funds. But journalist Mike Olmstead, a former advisory board member, says there was a problem.

"Something just didn't feel right. Not everybody seemed to be on the same page," said Olmstead.

"Our board would put together and send those up to St. Louis and it just never really turned into anything, "said Hudson.

The Midland Division of the Salvation Army here in St. Louis oversees Joplin.

"We are very prudent in how we handle such a big piece of money like that. So of course we are going to be rather slow to spend it immediately," Aho said.

Aho tells us three years after the tornado the Salvation Army has spent around $1 million in Joplin.

But according to documents obtained by NewsChannel 5, the Salvation Army raised $4.8 million in donations as far back as September 2011. That means, at least $3.8 million of your generosity is still sitting in the bank.

"No one imagined that almost three years later they would be holding on to 80 percent of the cash," said Ben Smilowitz.

Smilowitz is a Washington University graduate and the executive director of the Disaster Accountability Project, a non-partisan watchdog organization dedicated to improving disaster management systems. He says the problem with the Salvation Army and some other groups collecting disaster donations is that they're not transparent.

"Yeah, it's not like the Salvation Army said give us your money and we're going to hold on to it for the next three years," said Smilowitz. "They said help people now, save lives now. Look at us responding, we're doing such a good job, donate to us right now."

Back in Joplin, Callie Hudson has moved on to a new job and much of the advisory board has disbanded. But frustrations linger.

"The Salvation Army is a huge fixture in this community and always has been and a huge ball has been dropped," said Olmstead.

"It's sad for the city of Joplin because certainly we could use that money in so many different capacities to impact lives," added Hudson, shrugging.

Reporter: "So it's been three years, we're coming up on the three year anniversary. When will the bulk of that money be spent? Is there a timetable for that?"

"I wish I could tell you," said Aho.

The Salvation Army promises a long term approach. How long is still anybody's guess.


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