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BISHOPS-FIORENZA Nov-15-2005 (780 words) xxxn

FEMA gave bishops 'run around' on disaster aid, says archbishop

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Church officials got the "run around" from the Federal Emergency Management Agency when they wanted to know what federal plans were for helping the regions devastated by Hurricane Katrina, said the head of the bishops' hurricane relief task force.

The harsh criticism of FEMA came from Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, named earlier this year to head the task force coordinating church aid to the regions devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"It was clear to me that not a whole lot of help was coming from FEMA," he said.

Bishops' conference officials had to engage in several conference calls with the White House before Jim Towey, head of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, was appointed as a liaison to the bishops, but still "the answers we were getting were not clear," said Archbishop Fiorenza in a Nov. 15 report to the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops.

"The task force believes strongly that we must continue to put strong pressure on the White House and Congress so that we get the needed answers," he said.

At a news conference afterward, the archbishop said that the task force became involved after New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C Hughes and Bishop Thomas J. Rodi of Biloxi, Miss., got the "run around" when they asked FEMA what it would be able to do and how to access FEMA aid.

"They asked the task force to contact the White House," said the archbishop.

But even after Towey was named there were differences in what FEMA was saying about relief efforts and what its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, was saying, he added.

"There is still that type of confusion," he said.

In his talk to the bishops, Archbishop Fiorenza supported including Catholic schools located in the disaster zones in legislation to give schools federal relief funds. He noted that church-run schools are included in current legislation before Congress but said the bishops should be aggressive in insisting they remain part of the measure if efforts are made to water it down.

Regarding church efforts, he said that a nationwide, parish second collection for hurricane victims has generated $108.4 million with figures from some dioceses still out. So far 71 parishes across the country have signed up to support a parish in the disaster areas under a program coordinated by the Catholic Church Extension Society, he said.

The bishops continue efforts to coordinate programs with the federal government, but "our attempts to reduce the red tape associated with FEMA procedures have been only marginally successful, despite good faith attempts by Mr. Towey and Homeland Security," the archbishop said.

"Our efforts up to this point have, frankly, not been successful, and new approaches will be made with the Bush administration," he said.

The bishops' task force "strongly urges the Homeland Security agency, FEMA, the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives to resolve the impasse which is hindering the rebuilding of New Orleans, as well as the Gulf Coast of Mississippi," he said.

The bishops have a special interest in New Orleans because the rebuilding of the city is tightly bound with the reconstruction of the New Orleans Archdiocese, said the archbishop.

"It would be difficult to consider the life of New Orleans apart from the culture, traditions and customs of the Catholic Church," he said.

Archbishop Fiorenza cautioned against believing that New Orleans is recovering because of media reports that electricity has been restored to some parts of the city.

"The New Orleans power company has gone bankrupt," he said. "Electric power has not been restored throughout New Orleans."

A few hospitals have reopened but they provide "emergency care only for those with insurance. Uninsured persons are forced to use 'triage centers,' which are still set up in tents," said the archbishop.

"New Orleans is a long, long way from recovering," he said.

He made a special plea to Catholic universities to help in the rebuilding of Xavier University in New Orleans, which "provides African-Americans with outstanding programs in medicine, pharmacy and education."

Xavier, the nation's only historically black Catholic college, is closed, having suffered $90 million in damage, said the archbishop.

Regarding the $108.4 million donated in the nationwide collection, Archbishop Fiorenza said that $63 million was given to Catholic Charities USA, $22 million was given to the dioceses in the disaster region and $4 million to dioceses that are sheltering evacuees. The remainder has yet to be assigned, he said.

In addition the bishops' Committee on Home Missions has made $3 million available from its reserves to the dioceses in the disaster zones, he said.


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