Looking back on the recovery from Superstorm Sandy, a group of local leaders, buoyed by the contents of a task force report, are stressing the importance of making sure that faith-based organizations that provided concrete aid to those in need are reimbursed for their efforts.
Recognizing the constitutional wall between church and state, Councilmember Mark Treyger stressed that, in his view, such a distinction was inappropriate when religious organizations are providing the sort of support that many provided during Superstorm Sandy, which had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with humanitarian aid, during a press conference outside Coney Island Cathedral, 2816 Mermaid Avenue, on Thursday, April 20, where he was joined by city and religious leaders to discuss the report of the Hurricane Sandy Charitable Organizations and Houses of Worship Recovery Task Force.
“We are officially recognizing and memorializing all of the extraordinary work done by faith-based communities and multiple non-profit organizations that were there for people on day one of the recovery from the worst storm in our history,” Treyger said. The purpose of the task force, he added, was not only to “give [the faith-based community] the recognition and respect that they deserve,” but also “to find ways to help build their capacity so there is no guessing game in the future.”
“The task force,” he stressed, “gives us a blueprint for identifying these critical community resources and helping build their capacity.”
According to Treyger, some of the recommendations in the report include improving coordination among government, non-profit and faith based organizations; providing governmental support for local capacity-building; improving coordination among the larger network organizations, smaller non-profit congregations, and faith based organizations; and increasing coordination of financial resources for organization both before and after a disaster.
“The government needs to be flexible and not so rigid in allowing (organizations) to provide these services and then get reimbursed for it,” the councilmember said. “If a faith-based organization helped feed and clothe people and gave them shelter, at minimum we have an obligation to reimburse them for the services that they rendered.”
Treyger also called on the federal government to amend the Stafford Act and allow faith-based communities to apply for FEMA funding. “If you have a place of worship that has a space inside that provides public benefits that was severely damaged by a natural disaster, it is unconscionable to me that the government says to that church, synagogue, or mosque, you’re on your own,” he said. “They are not teaching or preaching religion when they are helping the homeless with food and aid during their time of need. Who is going to help the helpless?”
Director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency Jainey Bavishi agreed. “Too often, the relationship between government and these local organizations are a one-way push of information,” she said. “We don’t always do a very good job of fully utilizing these local resources in disaster recovery preparedness. This task force, with the deep engagement of both city and federal officials, sought to learn from the lessons of Sandy and change that dynamic.”
“They aren’t just places where people worship,” added New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) Executive Director Peter Guidaitis. “We have to see ourselves as a web of interconnected organizations because working together is the only way our communities will be more resilient for disasters to come.”
The site of the conference was chosen in part due to the damage it sustained and the aid it provided during the superstorm. “This was a church that was devastated by Sandy,” Treyger noted. “But during the time of need, these doors remained opened. They helped feed and clothe people, and gave them supplies while they were dealing with the worst they’ve ever seen.”
“We hope that out of this report and research that we can find a way that at least the houses of worship can be reimbursed for the humanitarian services that they provide for communities after storms like this,” said Bishop Waylyn Hobbs.