Federal flood program urged to extend deadline for Sandy victims

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) addresses a news U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) addresses a news conference in Washington. (July 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Sen. Charles Schumer urged the National Flood Insurance Program Tuesday to extend its deadline for homeowners to file lawsuits arguing for more money to cover damage from superstorm Sandy.

The government insurer, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says families must sue within one year of having any portion of their claim denied in writing. But Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other consumer advocates don't want that 12-month statute-of-limitations clock to start ticking until homeowners have exhausted their appeals and received a final settlement.

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"FEMA should [extend] the deadline so Sandy victims can finish negotiating their claims," Schumer said, standing in a vacant lot in Long Beach owned by a woman whose house was destroyed in the storm.

A FEMA spokesman said the agency was reviewing the request.

The push by Schumer and others to extend the statute of limitations comes as an untold number of Long Islanders continue to appeal flood insurance settlements.

FEMA estimates it has closed all but 100 or so of the roughly 57,000 flood insurance claims filed in New York in the wake of last October's storm. But consumer advocates say that does not account for the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of those who contend they were underpaid and continue to appeal.

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Earlier this month, FEMA granted homeowners an additional six months to file paperwork necessary to sue the flood insurer. By not also extending the statute of limitations, Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) argued in a letter to FEMA, the agency has sown confusion about when the clock starts ticking and is forcing homeowners to "hurry up and file a lawsuit."

For instance, Rena Bonné, who hosted Schumer Tuesday in what was once her front yard, received just $53,000 of a $250,000 flood policy to rebuild her two-bedroom ranch. The flood insurance program refused to pay for damage to the foundation, saying it was caused by shifting soil rather than floodwater, Bonné said.

After months of appeals, the flood insurer closed her case this month, she said. But Bonné, a high school English teacher, received her first written denial in January -- setting the 12-month statue of limitation clock in motion. So instead of having a year to consider suing, Bonné has two months.

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That's not enough time, advocates said.

"This isn't about money. And it shouldn't be about tricky, unknown deadlines," said Benjamin Rajotte, who runs Touro Law Center's disaster relief clinic in Central Islip. "This is about people's homes."

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