Story by David Karas | Correspondent
Superstorm Sandy-weary diocesan and parish officials are lauding a Federal Emergency Management Agency policy change announced Jan. 2 that reverses a prior exclusion for religious organizations and houses of worship from applying for federal aid to recover from natural disasters.
“This change in eligibility for FEMA public assistance to religious organizations is monumental,” said Joe Cahill, director of the diocesan Department of Risk Management.
FEMA’s revised manual, the “Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide,” indicates that the change can be applied retroactively to cover damages incurred on or after Aug. 23, 2017, allowing for coverage of damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
The policy change is attributed by FEMA to a 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court decision last June, which ruled that the Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri should not have been denied a public benefit just because it is a church.
“In light of the Trinity Lutheran decision, FEMA has considered its guidance on private nonprofit facility eligibility,” the agency’s new document said. The policy notes that houses of worship would not be excluded from eligibility for FEMA aid on the basis of the religious character or primarily religious use of the facility.
Damage 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-N.J. – advocated for legislative changes to allow for disaster relief funding eligibility for houses of worship.
While FEMA’s policy shift is being heralded as a significant step forward for religious organizations, the issue is highly technical, and FEMA officials are still working through how the federal agency will implement the policy. According to media reports and officials with the New Jersey Catholic Conference, there are no present guidelines as to how houses of worship can apply for this aid, and the policy decision is likely to be challenged in court.
The recent discussion about this funding, as well as the effect on religious institutions in Texas and Florida, resonate across the Diocese of Trenton, particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy.
“The memory of Sandy remains at the Diocese of Trenton,” Cahill said. “Many parishes on the barrier islands and other coastal areas have not fully recovered. Some homes remain abandoned or have been demolished.
“Parishioner 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.”
Some 65 individual parish properties incurred more than $14 million in damages and cleanup costs in Superstorm Sandy, Cahill said. Considerable 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.
“If 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.”
Under 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 basic nature – but even then, the process was lengthy.
“It took more than four months for the FEMA contractors to approve the applications for assistance to our schools and community social service centers,” he said. “Hopefully, this new change in the way religious institutions are viewed will not only speed up the process for the approval of grant assistance, but also include buildings that were automatically excluded such as churches, rectories, church business offices [and others].”
Additional frustrations came following denials for assistance in rehabilitating damaged buildings on the campus of St. Rose Parish, Belmar, and the St. Francis Community Center, Brant Beach. Initial appeals by the Diocese for coverage were unsuccessful, though Cahill believes that the new regulation would have likely resulted in a different outcome.
Msgr. 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.
“I can’t emphasize enough that good planning and management by the Diocese of Trenton in having adequate flood insurance saved the day,” Msgr. Arnister said. “St. Rose would have been in serious financial difficulty without that.”
And while FEMA provided some limited funding to assist with relief, Msgr. Arnister sees the recent policy change as a positive in the unfortunate event of another natural disaster.
“I hope and pray we never have to go through another Sandy or any other type of natural disaster,” he said. “Now with the change in regulations … FEMA will hopefully be more financially responsive to assist churches.”
Importance of Church
Congressman Smith has also played a significant role in advocating for relief funding access for religious organizations, both in the immediate wake of Superstorm Sandy and in recent months. Smith introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act to attempt to remedy this in 2013, and again in 2015 and 2017. Recently, the U.S. House of Representativespassed a supplemental disaster relief bill with nearly identical provisions. The bill is now pending in the Senate.
“My legislation, and the Trump Administration’s policy reform [which goes part of the way] will ensure that houses of worship, such as churches and synagogues, can now apply for desperately needed support,” Smith said. “These facilities are hubs in our communities for humanitarian assistance year-round, and especially during times of natural disaster.”
Smith credited 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.
“So many churches are directly involved in disaster relief and bring with them a cadre of committed volunteers,” he said. “During Sandy, I visited several disaster relief staging areas in Monmouth and Ocean Counties – including Mater Dei Prep, then part of St. Mary Parish in the Diocese of Trenton – and others provided by the Diocese, as well as by churches of other denominations across the disaster area. In 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.”
He continued, “Without them, our national recovery efforts would be significantly diminished and as such, churches should not be discriminated against when applying for federal assistance.”
James 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.
Reflecting 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.
“I 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 items.”
Catholic News Service contributed to this report.