'Monumental' FEMA shift opens door to disaster funds for religious groups

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Ginny Blasi

By David Karas

N.J. (CNS) — Superstorm Sandy-weary diocesan and parish officials lauded a Federal
Emergency Management Agency policy change announced earlier this year that
reverses a prior exclusion for religious organizations and houses of worship
from applying for federal aid to recover from natural disasters.

change in eligibility for FEMA public assistance to religious organizations is
monumental,” said Joe Cahill, director of the Diocese of Trenton’s Department of Risk

comments came before the Feb. 9 passage of the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act by Congress as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act. The bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump, codifies this change in FEMA policy.

fairness provision directs FEMA to make disaster relief assistance available to
houses of worship “on the same terms as other nonprofit entities,” said a
statement released the same day by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,
which had urged its passage.

provisions ensure that houses of worship are treated fairly. That’s good not
only for houses of worship but for the communities that depend on them,” added
the statement issued jointly by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky,
chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Joseph C. Bambera
of Scranton, Pennsylvania, chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious

it announced the policy change Jan. 2, FEMA attributed it to a 7-2 U.S. Supreme
Court decision last June, which held that Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri
should not have been denied a public benefit just because it is a church.

urging Congress to pass the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act,
the U.S. bishops and others also cited the Trinity Lutheran case.

to Texas churches and Florida synagogues following hurricanes Harvey and Irma sparked additional
legal challenges, as well as lawsuits filed against FEMA. In the fall, members
of Congress — including Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey — advocated for
legislative changes to allow for disaster relief funding eligibility for houses
of worship.

an interview prior to the federal budget bill’s passage, Cahill said the ongoing
debate over the funding has resonated across the Diocese of Trenton,
particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy.

memory of Sandy remains at the Diocese of Trenton,” Cahill told The Monitor,
newspaper of The Trenton Diocese. “Many parishes on the barrier islands and
other coastal areas have not fully recovered. Some homes remain abandoned or
have been demolished.

count has declined in some locations as local economies suffered from the
effects of the storm and (as) people moved away for reason of employment or
available housing.”

65 individual parish properties incurred more than $14 million in damages and
cleanup costs in Superstorm Sandy, Cahill said.

funds were necessary for removing debris, pumping out flood waters,
decontaminating flooded buildings and demolishing water-damaged infrastructure,
with churches, chapels, schools, community centers, food pantries, rectories,
convents, offices, cemeteries and other diocesan and church properties among
the affected sites.

FEMA assistance was available early on, it would have eased the cash flow
burden on the Diocese and parishes,” Cahill said, “as the cost of emergency
work in the early days after the storm was significant and could have covered a
portion of the flood insurance deductible for a named storm.”

the prior review process, Cahill said that a religious organization would have
to prove that assistance was for flood damage to buildings that were not
religious in nature — but even then, the process was lengthy.

Edward J. Arnister, pastor of St. Rose Parish, remembers all too well the
significant damage his parish and school community sustained at the hands of
Superstorm Sandy. It took four weeks before the church could reopen, and all
electric, heat and air conditioning systems had to be replaced. The parish
center and first floor of St. Rose High School had to be completely restored
and rebuilt, and the roof of St. Rose Grammar School was torn off by wind and
had to be replaced.

can’t emphasize enough that good planning and management by the Diocese of
Trenton in having adequate flood insurance saved the day,” Msgr. Arnister told
The Monitor. “St. Rose would have been in serious financial difficulty without
that.” FEMA did provide some limited funding for recovery efforts.

Congress, Smith introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness
Act first in 2013, and again in 2015 and 2017.

of worship “are hubs in our communities for humanitarian assistance year-round,
and especially during times of natural disaster,” he said in an interview
before the vote on his legislation as part of the budget bill.

praised the Diocese of Trenton for its “professional and meticulous” response
to Superstorm Sandy, noting the significant role that religious organizations
play in the wake of a natural disaster.

many churches are directly involved in disaster relief and bring with them a
cadre of committed volunteers,” he said.

every federal disaster, local synagogues, churches — their schools, community
centers, and physical houses of worship — provide supplies, food, medicines,
shelters and coordination of volunteer services,” Smith said.

them, our national recovery efforts would be significantly diminished and as
such, churches should not be discriminated against when applying for federal
assistance,” he added.

King, director of the Office of Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference
— the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops — visited Puerto Rico
in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which left in its path significant devastation.
King was on hand to support Catholic Charities efforts on the island.

on his experience, King shared his observations on how church communities
stepped up to provide support to victims, despite the significant damage
sustained by those communities themselves.

worked with local parishes that converted parts of church buildings into
distribution centers for essential items like food and water, despite damage to
those buildings,” King said. “Throughout my deployment, I heard numerous times
that if it were not for the Catholic Church having numerous facilities
throughout the island, some towns would not have received these essential

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is a correspondent for The Monitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton.

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