A crucial deadline looms next month for superstorm Sandy victims who think they were shortchanged on flood insurance claims, marking their final chance to file documents required to keep arguing for more money and, if necessary, take their fight to court.
Oct. 29 is the last day for residents and businesses to submit paperwork asserting how much they believe they are owed from the National Flood Insurance Program. Missing that deadline could dash all hopes of getting more money from the government-run insurer, lawyers said.
"If you submit this late, you are dead. The flood insurer can simply close the file," said Benjamin Rajotte, who runs Touro Law Center's disaster relief clinic in Central Islip. "You need to do this to continue the fight -- in or out of court."
Federal officials estimate they have closed 99 percent of the nearly 57,000 Sandy-related flood claims filed in New York State. Yet consumer advocates say that does not account for the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Long Islanders still appealing settlements. Their boarded-up houses along the South Shore stand as grim reminders, advocates say, that Sandy's aftermath still lingers.
"I feel like everyone thinks Sandy is over," said Michael Fay, 56, who has spent months sleeping in a trailer on the lawn of his flood-wrecked Massapequa house as he argues with adjusters over the cost of repairs.
Fay's three-bedroom Cape Cod stands close enough to the bay to hear the gulls and smell the brine. It took on 8 feet of water during the storm. Yet the $87,000 settlement offered by the flood insurance program would cover just half the repairs, he said.
Like much of the South Shore, Fay's neighborhood is mostly back to normal. Once-flooded houses are fixed. Pumpkins peer from windows, waiting for Halloween. Yet Sandy's shadow hasn't entirely faded. Hammers and buzz saws echo in the street. And a handful of homes remain empty, gutted and patched with particle board and blue tarpaulins.
"If you see a house that hasn't been rebuilt, odds are it's because of a flood-insurance problem," Rajotte said.
Private companies don't provide flood coverage, saying it's too risky. So the Federal Emergency Management Agency offers protection, enlisting companies like Allstate and Travelers to administer policies.
The key document that must be sent to those private companies next month is called a "proof of loss." It requires policyholders to state the cost of their repairs and provide evidence backing their claim.
In some cases, adjusters have already filed the paperwork for homeowners. But if policyholders disagree with the amount, they must file their own, asserting what they think is the proper figure.
"Think of how many thousands of people are going to be screwed because they don't realize that," said Michele Mittleman, a lawyer who has spent months appealing a settlement to rebuild her flood-ruined home in Freeport.
FEMA can grant exceptions. But a missed deadline opens the door for insurers to close a claim. Judges, meanwhile, will automatically rule against homeowners for filing late.
"It doesn't matter how good your claim is -- you can't collect on it if you miss this deadline," said Dennis Abbott, a lawyer who specializes in flood cases, which are notoriously difficult for homeowners to win.
Typically, a proof of loss is due 60 days after a storm. But FEMA extended the deadline to a year for Sandy, citing the unprecedented damage.
On Friday, federal lawmakers from New York including Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand asked FEMA to postpone that deadline for another six months. "It would be tragic," Schumer said, "if a family was not provided with the insurance money they deserved because of missing paperwork they didn't know they needed to file."