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FEMA Plans to Reimburse Faith Groups for Aid

Norma Rush, left, gets help finding clothing from Megan Dempsey, a volunteer from an Alabama church who aided victims in Mississippi.
Norma Rush, left, gets help finding clothing from Megan Dempsey, a volunteer from an Alabama church who aided victims in Mississippi. (By Michel Ducille -- The Washington Post)

"The good news is that this work is being done now, but I don't think a lot of people realize that a lot of these organizations are actively working to obtain federal funds. That's a strange definition of charity," he said.

Lynn added that he accepts the need for the government to coordinate with religious groups in a major disaster, but not to "pay for their good works."

"We've never complained about using a religious organization as a distribution point for food or clothing or anything else," Lynn said. But "direct cash reimbursements would be unprecedented."

FEMA outlined the policy in a Sept. 9 internal memorandum on "Eligible Costs for Emergency Sheltering Declarations." Religious groups, like secular nonprofit groups, will have to document their costs and file for reimbursement from state and local emergency management agencies, which in turn will seek funds from FEMA.

David Fukitomi, infrastructure coordinator for FEMA in Louisiana, said that the organization has begun briefings for potential applicants in the disaster area but that it is too early to know how many will take advantage of the program.

"The need was so overwhelming that the faith-based groups stepped up, and we're trying to find a way to help them shoulder some of the burden for doing the right thing," he said, adding that "the churches are interested" but that "part of our effort is getting the local governments to be interested in being their sponsor."

A spokeswoman for the Salvation Army said it has been in talks with state and federal officials about reimbursement for the 76,000 nights of shelter it has provided to Katrina survivors so far. But it is still unclear whether the Salvation Army will qualify, she said.

The Rev. Flip Benham, director of Operation Save America, an antiabortion group formerly known as Operation Rescue, said, "Separation of church and state means nothing in a time of disaster; you see immediately what a farce it is."

Benham said that his group has been dispensing food and clothing and that "Bibles and tracts go out with everything we put out." In Mendenhall, Miss., he said, he preached to evacuees while the mayor directed traffic and the sheriff put inmates from the county jail to work handing out supplies.

Yet Benham said he would never accept a dime from the federal government. "The people have been so generous to give that for us to ask for reimbursement would be like gouging for gas," he said. "That would be a crime against heaven."

For some individual churches, however, reimbursement is very appealing. At Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., as many as 200 evacuees and volunteer workers have been sleeping each night in the sanctuary and Sunday school classrooms. The church's entrance hall is a Red Cross reception area and medical clinic. As many as 400 people a day are eating in the fellowship hall.

Suzie Harvey, the parish administrator, said the church was asked by the Red Cross and local officials to serve as a shelter. The church's leadership agreed immediately, without anticipating that nearly a quarter of its 650 members would be rendered homeless and in no position to contribute funds. "This was just something we had to do," she said. "Later we realized we have no income coming in."

Harvey said the electric bill has skyrocketed, water is being used round-the-clock and there has been "20 years of wear on the carpet in one month." When FEMA makes money available, she said, the church definitely will apply.


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