SPECIAL REPORT: Saving Grace part 2

Special Reports

BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB)- Local churches are working through a nest of government paperwork in hopes that they can get FEMA to answer some of their prayers.

It’s not only homes and businesses struggling to rebuild after Hurricane Michael, but also our local houses of worship. Many area churches across Bay County find themselves struggling with the same issue; a lack of funds. 

Churches have had to relocate and find alternative places to hold their services throughout the past year.

“It’s just been a journey trying to figure out where we meet, how we serve the needs of the community, those kinds of things post-storm, it’s been a challenge just like it’s been for individual families and governments and all sorts of things,” said Pastor at Northstar Church, Joshua Street.

In March, News 13 spoke with area churches about their recovery efforts and a number of pastors told us they didn’t have wind coverage, which was the specific insurance coverage needed in regards to the damage caused by Hurricane Michael. 

With an insurance claim off the table, these congregations had to look elsewhere for funds to rebuild, and thankfully there is an option.

As of January 2018, FEMA announced that damage houses of worship could request FEMA assistance through its public assistance grant program. The program works by providing grants to state and local governments and certain types of private non-profit organizations so communities can respond to and recover from presidentially-declared disasters, such as Hurricane Michael.

Joshua Street, a Pastor at Northstar Church in Panama City, says it’s about time that churches were eligible to apply for FEMA assistance. “Private non-profits have been included for many years and so to be able to be a part of that as well is not only a huge benefit to us but also a huge benefit to the county,” said Street. 

Representatives with FEMA say the program is funded on a cost-share basis and administered by the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

 In order to be eligible, a church must meet the following requirements:

  1. Must be owned or operated by a Private Non-Profit organization. 
  2. Must have damage caused by Hurricane Michael that occurred on Oct. 7-19, 2018. 
  3. Must provide a non-critical but essential service open to the general public, without regard to their religious or secular nature. 
  4. Must provide an IRS current ruling letter granting tax exemption status under Section 501 (c) (d) or (e). 
  5. Must have documentation from the state substantiating it is a non-revenue producing, nonprofit organization organized or doing business under state law

Area pastors who applied for the grant program through FEMA say this is all a new process for them, but they appreciate the help that’s being offered. However, there are many questions about the process. “FEMA has stepped in and helped some, obviously we don’t know what that looks like until further down the road, but it does give us some peace of mind and we’re thankful for it,” said Ivane Beach, the pastor at Bayside Church.

Beach said they just bought a new building for Bayside Church off Balboa Avenue in Panama City just days before the storm.

“We signed the papers on Friday morning, never even came into the building and obviously this didn’t turn out the way we wanted,” said Beach. 

The building has yet to hold a service, but they’re hopeful that this program will help them get the church up and running. Like many other churches in the area who are participating in this program, they’re still tied up in the paperwork process.

Churches that chose to participate had to first apply by December 14th of 2018. Following application approval, they move to the next stage of calculating the damage then assessing the estimating cost of repairs. Once that money is approved, they can begin demolition. 

Officials with Harvest Worship Center in Lynn Haven say they’re still waiting on that final approval in order to move forward. 

“We can’t start the demo and we can’t start the plans until we know how much we’re going to be able to build with,” said Pastor at Harvest Worship Center, John Ramsey. 

Ramsey’s church is already working with FEMA when it comes to their temporary portables for their preschool program. They say while they appreciate the help, they worry about the reimbursement process. 

“FEMA really wants to help and they’ve been doing a great job trying to help us but the process they’ve got set up is extremely slow. If you don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars laying around which we don’t, fronting a project as big as that can be tough,” said Ramsey.

Fronting a potentially multi-million dollar project such as rebuilding a church is a common concern among congregations participating in the grant program. 

FEMA Media Relations Specialist, Jim Homstad, says to be patient and the process will work, but it does vary. “Each case is going to be considered on a case by case basis and it comes down to eligibility. There’s no set amount, it’s not a one size fits all and that’s the best way to put it,” said Homstad.

The following churches are approved to participate in the grant reimbursement process according to FEMA

  • Bayside Church
  • Christ Church of Panama City
  • City Church at Northside
  • Emmaus United Methodist Church
  • Fellowship Baptist Church
  • First Church of Nazarene
  • Forest Park United Methodist
  • Harvest Worship Center
  • Hiland Park United Methodist
  • Lighthouse Baptist Church
  • Northstar Church
  • Panama City Fellowship Church of Praise
  • Parkway Presbyterian Church
  • St. Andrew United Methodist Church
  • The Rock of Panama City
  • Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church
  • Zion Hope Baptist Church

While there are a number of churches participating in the FEMA grant program, some churches are content at this time with raising money to rebuild in their own way. Through fundraisers and donations, First Presbyterian in downtown Panama City is slowly on the way to recovery. 

“We aren’t receiving money from FEMA and we haven’t made a decision as to whether we would accept money if FEMA offered it,” said Pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Ron Brown.

Brown says his faith in God is what will get his church through this difficult time, but he believes the process is moving steadily. While it’s not a set date, he hopes to have the church back up and running in the original building sometime next summer, but he understands the process could take longer than that.  

“We’ve got enough money to put a roof on and then we’ll have to see how much money we can continue to raise for the rest of it so that is probably the determining factor,” said Brown.

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