TOMS RIVER — Ninety percent of the superstorm Sandy victims who have sought assistance with reopening their flood insurance claims seem to be owed some money, the head of Ocean County’s Long-Term Recovery Group said Thursday.
“Many are owed substantial amounts of money,” the group’s Executive Director, Sue Marticek, said at the monthly meeting of the long-term recovery group. “It could be that game-changer that determines whether people get home or not.”
Marticek’s group has been holding clinics throughout the state aimed at helping residents decide whether to reopen their flood insurance claim through FEMA. The long-term recovery group has so far reviewed 150 cases, and 90 percent of them appear to be owed money, Marticek said.
She said the group has been using monies from the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund to pay for homeowners’ flood claims to be reviewed by an insurance expert. The expert’s opinion and notes are then forwarded along to FEMA, she said.
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.
But many homeowners have so far chosen not to seek a review. The deadline to apply for a review is Sept. 15. To reopen a claim, call 1-866-337-4262 or go to www.fema.gov/hurricane-sandy-nfip-claims.
FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said that so far, 17,642 people have contacted FEMA’s call center or downloaded an online application to request a review. Of that number, 12,340 have been deemed eligible for further review, and 11,476 claims have had their eligibility confirmed and have entered the review process.
Activists have expressed concern that many Sandy victims who could be eligible for additional payments if they reopened their claims have so far been unwilling to do so.
Some homeowners have expressed concern that any additional proceeds they might receive would be clawed back by the state or the federal government and could potentially cut their awards under the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, the largest rebuilding program for homeowners. New Jersey has indicated it will not pursue any new insurance money that overlaps with a RREM grant.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has not given a definitive answer about whether it will attempt to claw back any duplicate funds.
The RREM program is funded through federal Community Development Block Grant monies allocated by HUD. The state’s Congressional delegation is hoping that HUD won’t seek reimbursement from homeowners who receive additional insurance proceeds.
Other homeowners fear that accepting more insurance money could push their home into the “substantially damaged” category, forcing them to elevate the structure.
FEMA considers a home substantially damaged if the total cost of repairs exceeds 50 percent of the house’s pre-Sandy market value.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has said that FEMA officials have assured him that properties will not be moved into the substantially damaged category if homeowners receive more flood insurance proceeds. But many remain skeptical.
Almost all of the state’s Congressional delegation, along with the long-term recovery group and other Sandy advocates, have asked for FEMA to extend the deadline for reopening a flood claim by two months, to Dec. 15.
“I think there is the opportunity for us to bring in extra tens of millions of dollars into this recovery if we can get this extension,” Marticek said.
Jean Mikle: (732) 643-4050, firstname.lastname@example.org