TOMS RIVER – Should you hire a lawyer to assist you with a review of your flood-insurance claim?
Three New Jersey groups that are offering free legal counseling for storm victims suggest you speak to them first.
“They don’t need to pay an attorney to do this,” Alayna Berg, a forensic social worker with Legal Services of New Jersey, told Ocean County disaster advocates on June 4. “This is not something that is so scary. There are three organizations that are willing to give information for free. Please try that first.”
Legal Services of NJ will join with the Community Health Law Project and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice to offer a free forum on the National Flood Insurance Program and the review process for flood insurance claims from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, June 13 at the Toms River Municipal Building, 33 Washington St.
But after more than 2 1/2 years of fighting for more flood insurance money, some Sandy victims don’t believe they’ll get a fair review from FEMA without the help of a lawyer.
Don’t go it alone
George Kasimos, founder of the Sandy watchdog group Stop FEMA Now, believes that Sandy victims are better off hiring a lawyer to represent them.
“I am of the firm belief that you should not go this alone,” Kasimos said. “People who just pick up the phone and do this themselves, I don’t think they will get the maximum they are entitled to.”
In March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that 142,000 Sandy victims would get a second chance at making a flood insurance claim if they felt they had been cheated by their flood insurance provider. About 73,000 of those victims live in New Jersey.
The review was ordered by FEMA after evidence emerged of a potentially widespread scheme to fundamentally change the engineering reports that insurance companies rely on to determine if a structural damage claim is paid out. Reports that blamed the post-Sandy damage on earth movement or house settling were often used to deny coverage. Possible fraud aside, homeowners on the Shore and elsewhere have complained that they were lowballed by their insurers.
“We want to make sure we’re educating the community,” said Sue Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, an umbrella organization of about 80 nonprofit groups that brings Sandy victims together with available resources to help them rebuild and get back into their homes. “We want to make sure people understand how to do this.”
Lawyers come with costs
Marticek pointed out that Sandy victims who hire lawyers or public adjusters will have to pay the costs of those professionals by using some of the proceeds from any additional flood insurance awards. This could leave them still short of the funds they need to make it back home, she said.
Kasimos pointed to FEMA’s own figures on the first round of reviewed claims, released late last month. Of the nearly 800 people who requested a FEMA review of their claim by May 19, 530 were deemed eligible for a review.
“A third of the people who called have already been rejected,” Kasimos said. “That’s a big number.”
Kasimos said many Sandy victims don’t trust FEMA after feeling they were not treated fairly when they first filed their flood insurance claims.
“This is an adversarial relationship,” Kasimos said. “They screwed us the first time around, why would they help us now?”
Jean Mikle: 732-643-4050, firstname.lastname@example.org