Thousands on LI still waiting for Sandy flood insurance settlements

Amy Italiano sits in her gutted home in

Amy Italiano sits in her gutted home in the Nassau Shores community in Massapequa. She is among thousands of Long Islanders who have yet to receive their full settlements from the government-run National Flood Insurance Program. (Jan. 31, 2013) (Credit: Johnny Milano)

Thousands of Long Islanders trying to rebuild from superstorm Sandy are still waiting for final insurance settlements, leaving them struggling to pay contractors and frustrated at having half-gutted homes more than three months after being flooded.

Many of these homeowners have been paying premiums for years, even decades, to the government-run National Flood Insurance Program. While most have received some money, nearly half of all New Yorkers who filed flood claims after Sandy still haven't been paid in full, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The months-long wait for insurance money has sown deep resentment in storm-weary South Shore neighborhoods, where streets remain dotted with damaged homes. It has slowed rebuilding. And it has stoked anger among homeowners who say it's unfair the government handed out disaster aid to people who didn't have insurance before settling up with those who did.


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"I paid my premiums for all those years," said Joanne Besemer, 61, who has had flood insurance since 1990 for her Copiague home. "It's not fair. The people who did the right thing -- we get smashed."

FEMA: WE'RE WORKING ON IT

Officials at FEMA, which runs the flood insurance program, say they are working as quickly as possible. Processing claims is labor intensive, they say, and FEMA is paying out between $80 million and $90 million each day. That pace should quicken now that adjusters have finished assessing most of the damage, FEMA officials said.

"We won't be satisfied until policyholders have received payments for all covered losses," agency spokesman Dan Watson said.

The most recent statistics show FEMA had settled 54 percent of the roughly 56,000 flood claims filed in New York State, paying an average of $42,000 per household. Many of the remaining 26,000 homes and businesses statewide have received partial payments, often less than $30,000.

Although specific numbers for Long Island were not available, the region was the hardest hit in the state, with 43,100 homes protected by flood insurance inundated by the storm surge in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to federal statistics. It's unclear how many of those homeowners filed claims.

Regular homeowners insurance covers damage from wind and fire -- but not flooding because most private insurers feel such coverage is too risky. So the government provides most flood coverage.

FEMA took steps after Sandy to speed the settlement process, including expediting advance payments and reducing the amount of paperwork adjusters must file to complete claims. Since not all policyholders filed immediately after the storm, FEMA officials said it is too early to tell whether they are lagging behind their goal of settling claims within an average of 45 days.

The government-run program is, however, trailing private insurance companies, which have closed 76 percent of their 321,000 New York Sandy claims for wind damage and storm-wrecked automobiles, according to the state Department of Financial Services.

Some homeowners have secured loans or used their own money to pay for repairs as they wait for the remainder of their flood settlements. Others have postponed rebuilding and continue to live in hotels, unrepaired homes or in recreational vehicles parked in their driveways.

Amy Italiano, who swam from her Massapequa house the night of the Oct. 29 storm with her two children in life jackets, said she is still waiting for her flood adjuster to give her a final settlement number. That makes it hard to plan repairs, she said.

"How can I put together a budget when I don't know how much money I will have?" said Italiano, 42, a high-school teacher. "I've already shelled out as much money as I can shell out."

Unlike those without flood insurance, homeowners who paid for policies are not eligible for most FEMA disaster aid until they have exhausted their settlements. They are also ineligible for some private charities' grants.

RESIDENTS GETTING RESTLESS

Since the storm, FEMA has provided $876 million in disaster aid in New York to about 112,000 households, many of which were not protected by flood insurance. While the maximum amount is $31,900, few families actually received that much. The average has been $7,800. And in the long run, most with flood insurance will get far more, FEMA said.

But in the short term, those who paid premiums have grown impatient. "Basically if you have insurance, everyone out there says to you: 'Too bad,' " said Michele Insinga, 50, whose Lindenhurst home was flooded.

There are myriad reasons why it takes longer to settle insurance claims than to provide disaster aid, industry experts said. Insurance policies are legal contracts. Adjusters are supposed to meticulously calculate damages, then review policies to determine what is covered, what's not and precisely how much homeowners are owed.

The players involved, meanwhile, form a bureaucratic layer cake, thick with contractors and subcontractors. At the top is the National Flood Insurance Program, which hires private companies including Travelers, Allstate and other large insurers. They, in turn, hire adjusting companies. Those outfits hire freelancers to do the adjusting.

Once assigned to a claim, adjusters are supposed to call homeowners within 48 hours and arrive at the house within 72 hours. They take measurements, pictures and copious notes. Then they write up estimates, which are sent to Allstate and the others. The insurance companies review the claims, then send the checks on FEMA's behalf.

While the agency strives to close all claims within an average of 45 days, they sometimes take years. Policyholders appeal. New damages are discovered. And the process drags on. There are still outstanding claims from Katrina, FEMA said.

That's not necessarily comforting for Long Islanders waiting for settlements so they can put their lives back together.

Back in Copiague, Joanne Besemer is sick of waiting. She has spent $50,000 from her own pocket to begin rebuilding. After years of paying premiums, she has received just $10,000 of what she hopes will be a $147,000 settlement, said Besemer, who works at the Amityville Public Library.

"I don't want charity. I don't want a loan," she said. "I just want what's due to me."

With Sarah Crichton


FAST FACT

There were roughly 56,000 claims made statewide. Of those, about 30,000 have been settled. The average amount per household is $42,000.

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