On the eve of the first anniversary of the most powerful natural disaster to hit the Northeast, U.S. Cong. Chris Smith told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell the time has come for the U.S. Senate to act on a bipartisan bill passed by the House in February to help put houses of worship—many of which were severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy and yet continued to serve ravaged coastal communities—on the same playing field with other non-profit organizations seeking disaster assistance.
Smith has pointed out that “one bottleneck that still separates families, slammed by Superstorm Sandy from homecoming plans is a final flood insurance settlement.” Numerous homeowners are still finding that their offered insurance settlement is nowhere large enough to cover repairs and home contents lost while some appear to be the victim of poorly trained adjusters. Smith has sought legislative initiatives to delay the implantation of higher flood insurance rates as FEMA and will continue legislative and other solutions aimed at making flood insurance affordable.
Many homeowners have complained that adjusters have been overlooking many unavoidable costs required for restoring someone’s home such as the New Jersey 7 percent sales tax. Others have mentioned that along with inaccurate construction assessments, estimates were sometimes given for the wrong heating system or the incorrect type of replacement tile, and numerous seemingly small items that adjusters failed to notice. So while perhaps individually minor, when put together such unnoticed and unreported factors can add up to thousands of dollars and can alter someone’s rebuilding decision.
Smith, who took a lead role in obtaining $60 billion in federal disaster relief funding for Superstorm Sandy victims, wrote a bill, H.R. 592, called the "Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013."
“FEMA has done some good things and Governor Chris Christie has stepped up to the plate, but the problem has been that houses of worship and community and faith-based organizations have been excluded in very large measure from any kind of or community help,” Smith said.
The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act did pass the House of Representatives by a vote of 354 – 72 on February 13, 2013, but has not been acted on in the Senate. The bill would ensure that nonprofit faith-based facilities damaged in Sandy and future storms receive federal funds in the same manner as any other private nonprofit facility providing public service as was the base in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. There are 126 buildings in the Trenton Catholic Diocese alone that sustained significant damage as a result of Sandy. While Smith’s legislation would provide aid for faith based facilities, it could also be done administratively FEMA and the Obama Administration.
Supported by original cosponsors Reps. Grace Meng (D-NY-06), and Peter King (R-NY-02), and cosponsors Eliot Engel (D-NY-16), Trent Franks (R-AZ-08), Michael Grimm (R-NY-11), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ-02), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY-04) and Bill Pascrell Jr.(D-NJ-09), the bill passed 354-72. The legislation stipulates that the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which funds the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief program, is a general government program under which federal assistance following a natural disaster can be rendered using criteria that are neutral with regard to religion. Congress has previously enacted laws providing financial assistance to religious nonprofit institutions, including houses of worship, on terms equal to other eligible nonprofit organizations. The bill has been stalled in the Senate.
There are precedents for federal aid to disaster-damaged houses of worship. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress overruled FEMA’s refusal to provide assistance to the damaged churches. In 2002, after an earthquake in Seattle, the Justice Department intervened to order FEMA to assist religious organizations damaged by the quake.
The bill has been endorsed by numerous organization and individuals, including: