Thousands of homeowners who think they were lowballed by flood insurers after superstorm Sandy should keep an eye on their mailboxes next month, although for most it will likely be a longer wait for justice.
Executives at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which underwrites nearly all flood insurance policies in the U.S., divulged details about the still-forming review process during the first meeting of the Sandy Task Force, a committee that includes U.S. senators from New Jersey and New York.
FEMA head Craig Fugate said the plan is to start first with the claims where an engineering review was performed by any firm that has been tied to some of the questionable actions that have come to light in recent months. After that, he continued, will be policyholders whose insurer had an structural inspection performed by any other firm. Then, finally, anybody else whose policy was paid out below policy limits.
“I want to be able by May to send out the first letters,” said Brad Kieserman, who is overseeing what FEMA is calling the Sandy claims review.
Kieserman declined to elaborate on any time line, acknowledging that number of people potentially involved — more than 140,000 claims could be in line for a another look — makes this “unprecedented.”
Last month, FEMA said it had identified 15,311 claims where an engineering report was prepared on behalf of the insurer and the payment was something less than the maximum the policy allows. Of those, 3,402 were in New Jersey.
The hearing, which lasted about two hours and changed in tone from conciliation to fury, was in response to what organizer Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said was a groundswell of public opinion that Sandy victims needed to be made whole and that the flood insurance claims process needed to be radically reworked.
Menendez and Charles Schumer, New York’s senior Democratic U.S. senator, both floated potentially major changes, such as scaling down or removing private insurers out of the National Flood Insurance Program or eliminating the earth movement exemption that has been used to deny flood claims in the aftermath of Sandy.
But it was the reopening of Sandy claims that got the most attention. Panelists noted that its ramifications run from the obvious — more money for homeowners — to the unknown — will an additional payout force homeowners to pay back grant money that was supposed to supplement flood insurance?
On that last point, Kieserman said FEMA has pledged to not clawback disaster aideven if more insurance proceeds would traditionally trigger a demand for the recipient to return it back.
“That said, everybody needs to understand that if you took (aid money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) … from New Jersey (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program), we have no jurisdiction over that,” he added.
Sue Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group, spoke to the lawmakers — Menenedez, and fellow Democratic senators Cory Booker, Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand — and FEMA representatives about the weariness of the typical Sandy victim that she works with.
“It is imperative that whatever this process turns out to be it has to be done in timely and simple manner,” Marticek said. “Our homeowners can’t take another bureaucracy.”
Also from New Jersey was George Kasimos, the firebrand who started Stop FEMA Now, which was founded after Sandy to raise awareness about flood insurance affordability.
Kasimos took time in his opening remarks to pledge to work with FEMA, though he followed that sentiment up by asking for independent, external oversight of the Sandy claims review. He said his members had lost faith in government.
“We are the middle class and we just want what we paid for,” he said.
Several members of Stop FEMA Now had traveled by bus to attend the hearing in person, including Maria Ehmer Carbone, who lost the Bayville home she shared with her special-needs daughter during Sandy.
Carbone told the Asbury Park Press Tuesday morning about how the water rushed into her home and the “house literally shook” as the foundation cracked. The 60-year-old disabled paralegal and her daughter, who has Tourette syndrome, received some money for her patio and grill, but nothing for her house and have been bouncing from temporary home to temporary home ever since the storm.
She said Tuesday’s hearing should send a message to insurance companies.
“How can they do what they did to me and others?” she said.