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FEMA disaster funds expanded to eligible churches

January 9th, 2018 / By: Jane Rodgers | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

FEMA disaster funds expanded to eligible churches

WASHINGTON—Churches are potentially eligible for disaster assistance, according to a recent declaration by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but a Feb. 4 deadline must be heeded.

FEMA had allowed affected churches providing social services to apply for federal assistance as of Sept. 28, 2017, but the latest changes, announced Jan. 2, expand potential eligibility and occurred after lawsuits brought by three Texas churches.

The changes apply to disasters declared on or after Aug. 23, 2017. Organizations with applications pending with FEMA as of that date which had not been resolved as of Jan. 2 also are eligible.

Houses of worship must be owned or operated by private, nonprofit organizations to be eligible for aid.

FEMA assistance for the repair or replacement of a church facility is limited to costs that a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration will not cover. Houses of worship must apply to the SBA for a loan before receiving FEMA aid.

The SBA has long made physical disaster business loans to churches while FEMA has had a policy of denying aid to religious entities. The original deadline to apply for an SBA physical disaster loan for business for damages related to Hurricane Harvey was Oct. 24, 2017 -- the statutory deadline set by Congress at 60 days following a presidential disaster declaration.

Susheel Kumar, an SBA public information officer, told the TEXAN that the deadline, first reset to Nov. 30, has been extended again.

“Due to the extraordinary disaster losses resulting from Hurricane Harvey, the SBA is in a grace period for accepting home and business disaster loan applications in all declared areas,” Kumar said, encouraging churches to apply.

“The SBA will accept applications through the grace period till further notified by the coordinating agency [FEMA],” Kumar added.

Since application for an SBA disaster loan is a prerequisite for receiving FEMA assistance, time is crucial.

“FEMA is allowing a 30-day application period beginning Jan. 5, 2018, and applications will be accepted no later than Feb. 4,” FEMA disaster recovery manager Kevin Hannes said regarding houses of worship.

Churches must not wait for an SBA loan decision, which could take 30 to 45 days, to apply to FEMA or they will miss the Feb. 4 deadline.

“Apply first to the SBA, then to FEMA. It is a parallel track process,” Kumar urged, emphasizing the need to submit applications to both agencies.

FEMA deputy federal coordinator Scott Thomas added, “A church won’t get any funding from FEMA until a decision is rendered by the SBA.” A church that has not applied for an SBA business disaster loan will not be considered for FEMA funds at all.

Kumar also clarified that churches are not eligible for SBA economic disaster relief loans, per the provisions of the Stafford Act.

“Congress would have to change the law,” he said.

As of Jan. 5, the SBA had issued more than $3 billion in loans for physical and economic injury related to Hurricane Harvey, Kumar said.

In announcing its policy change, FEMA cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which said the state of Missouri could not prevent a Lutheran church from participating in a government-funded playground resurfacing program solely because it was a church.

For applications and information on SBA physical disaster loans for businesses, visit https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela/Information/BusinessPhysicalLoans.

Houses of worship desiring to apply for public assistance from FEMA must submit a request for public assistance downloadable at https://grants.dps.texas.gov/site/PA.cfm (click on forms). Applicants must return the form to TDEMrecovery.rpa@dps.texas.gov.

This article includes reporting by David Roach of Baptist Press.