IEM at Work: Finding Every Dollar Available for Houses of Worship

Helping communities recover is a team effort, and IEM knows that a key partner in this effort are houses of worship. Private nonprofit organizations (PNPs) like places of worship provide emergency shelter infrastructure, host food banks and provide family care during a disaster. In this respect, PNPs serve as a vital backstop to local governments in times of crisis.

However, up until recently under the Stafford Act, religious organizations only received prorated funding based on the percentage the facility devoted to religious activities versus the percentage that is available for public activities generally.

This distinction assumes that during a disaster the portion of the building ordinarily used for religious activities would not be opened up to serve as emergency shelter to all who need it, regardless of faith. During times of crisis, the reality can be much different.

The Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., challenged this eligibility restriction, and in June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the church’s favor. By January 2018, FEMA published a clarification of Public Assistance funding eligibility incorporating this ruling.

IEM has had a team on the ground in New York since Superstorm Sandy that is continuously working to secure funding for Public Assistance (PA) projects under the Stafford Act. Since IEM makes it our business to stay abreast on FEMA policy changes, particularly with regard to expanding funding opportunities for recovering communities, the team in New York acted immediately. When the Supreme Court ruled to eliminate the eligibility restriction on places of worship, the team revisited and amended a FEMA application for the Temple Israel of South Merrick in Nassau County.

“Originally, we were only able to justify funding at the 52 percent level for Temple Israel based on the space utilization report we developed for the project worksheet,” said David Luke, an IEM FEMA policy specialist. “With this policy change we were able to add the temple’s worship area and the religious preschool, which brought the eligibility to almost 90 percent under the Stafford Act.”

The IEM team identified a number of other houses of worship in the New York City area and notified FEMA of their now expanded eligibility.

Luke feels good about what he was able to do for that neighborhood in South Merrick. “Now they have more resources when another storm hits.”

Houses of worship do their part to aid their communities during an emergency by welcoming everyone in need. IEM will continue to do its part to make sure those religious organizations receive the recognition and funding they deserve, helping to make the whole community more storm-resilient for future events.