New Catholic lawmaker aiming to help Hoosiers with disaster relief

By Victoria Arthur

Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers

A catastrophic tornado outbreak in Indiana last spring hit close to home for a new Hoosier lawmaker who now has set her sights on changing the way the state responds to disasters. 

Sen. Cyndi Carrasco (R-Indianapolis) witnessed the destruction caused by the March 31 twisters not far from her southside Indianapolis home and her parish of Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi in Greenwood.

When she was chosen in an October caucus to represent Senate District 36 following the sudden passing of Sen. Jack Sandlin, the impact of those spring storms remained at the forefront of her thinking. Now the first-time state senator has introduced her first piece of legislation at the Indiana General Assembly – Senate Bill 190, which would ease access to disaster relief and offer more resources for individuals and communities to rebuild now and in the future.

“Those images stick in my mind,” said Carrasco, whose district includes portions of southern Marion County and northern Johnson County. “In times of crisis after a disaster, the last thing you need is a very complicated formula to determine whether or not you’re going to be eligible for dollars. You need to be able to access help easily.

“We’ve got the dollars, and we want to be able to help people quickly and efficiently.” 

More than two decades ago, the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF) was established to assist individuals and local governments in the aftermath of tornadoes, floods and other disasters. The SDRF is funded by sales of fireworks in Indiana and is administered by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. 

But officials with the department have identified roadblocks in state law that make accessing disaster relief funds difficult if not impossible for many families and communities. They have provided input to Sen. Carrasco – an attorney and former Inspector General for the state of Indiana – to help address these issues through her proposed legislation. 

“The intent of Senate Bill 190 is to fix the statutory limits of the program to better serve Hoosiers,” Carrasco told lawmakers during a Jan. 16 meeting of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Transportation, which resulted in the committee’s unanimous support of the measure. 

Senate Bill 190 would simplify the formula used to calculate how much funding communities can receive from the SDRF following a disaster. With respect to individual assistance, the legislation would help Hoosiers by giving the state of Indiana autonomy over the program, which currently can be accessed only when the U.S. Small Business Administration declares a disaster for an impacted community. 

Importantly, Senate Bill 190 also would increase the maximum amount of assistance a household may receive from $10,000 to $25,000.

Streamlining and bolstering the state’s disaster relief program is a priority of Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb. The legislation also has a strong ally in the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. 

The ICC has a deeply personal connection to Sen. Carrasco. The new state senator gives full credit to Angela Espada, the ICC’s executive director, for bringing her to Indiana. When Espada was serving in her prior role as dean of students and admissions at Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, she recruited the El Paso, Texas, native as a law student after recognizing her unique talents and gifts.

“The ICC is pleased to support Sen. Carrasco on her first bill,” Espada said. “When I met her years ago … I found her to be an intelligent, inquisitive and compassionate person. Authoring this bill, which will aid Hoosiers in need, is an example of her commitment to better the situation of others. Our state is fortunate that Sen. Carrasco has made Indiana her home.” 

In testifying on Senate Bill 190 at the January committee hearing, Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC, reinforced the numerous ways the legislation would benefit Hoosiers and spoke on behalf of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, whose Disaster Preparedness and Response office serves the entire state in times of crisis.

“When a disaster strikes in Indiana, Catholic Charities is one of the first to arrive on the scene and one of the last to leave,” Mingus told lawmakers. 

He outlined many of the challenges and constraints that Catholic Charities and others encounter in providing help following a disaster, including dramatically increasing construction costs.

In one example, Mingus noted Catholic Charities replaced a roof on a three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot house for $8,000 in 2018. Just five years later – in the aftermath of COVID-19 and rapidly escalating inflation – the cost to replace a roof on a comparable home was $23,000. 

Almost a year following the spring 2023 tornadoes, Jane Crady, longtime coordinator of Disaster Preparedness and Response for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, is still working with families in the hardest-hit areas. That includes Sullivan, Indiana, where an EF-3 tornado with peak winds of 155 miles per hour killed three people and destroyed 200 homes on the night of March 31.

“It affects the whole community,” Crady said.

“This is where Senate Bill 190 comes in,” she continued. “We could do so much more now. If families were only getting $10,000 (under the current state framework), they couldn’t even put a new roof on their house. Passage of this bill is going to make a big difference for people, and that’s the bottom line.”

At press time, the measure was awaiting consideration by the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

“This is a good bill that is going to help people,” Carrasco said. “One of my first priorities was to ensure that the fund is solvent for everyone. The bill will be reviewed by the appropriations committee because of the potential fiscal impact. We’re just waiting for it to be assigned.”

To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit ICAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for ICAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.