Official: State didn't foresee delay in Sandy insurance checks

A member of the charity group Samaritan's Purse A member of the charity group Samaritan's Purse helps homeowners on Michigan Street in Long Beach strip their houses, destroyed by superstorm Sandy, Nov. 18, 2012. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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ALBANY -- A Cuomo administration official admitted Thursday the state "did not foresee" the problem of banks holding up insurance checks to Sandy victims in the immediate aftermath of last fall's superstorm.

State Department of Financial Services Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky acknowledged the lapse at a hearing when pressed by state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) about what the state could have done differently to speed up insurance payments to homeowners -- many of whom have complained that money has flowed too slowly, delaying repairs and depleting their savings.

Martins didn't blame the state but said the four-month delay for homeowners was "untenable."

"I think we would have reacted and worked with the banks to prepare for that situation the day after the storm," Lawsky said in hindsight. "We did not foresee that problem."

Lawsky said in the future the state will move more quickly to establish help centers to assist homeowners get their insurance checks. "These centers we're setting up now, four months" after Sandy struck on Oct. 29, Lawsky told the Senate Committee on Banks, "we'll set them up right after the storm."

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Lawsky was referring to a series of forums next week to bring together banks, mortgage servicers and homeowners to expedite insurance checks. He also said banks were releasing more money to homeowners this week.

A state inquiry revealed two weeks ago that banks and mortgage servicers were withholding $208 million in insurance settlements from some 6,600 families whose homes were damaged by the storm. The families who were due an average payment of $31,000, officials said.

Lenders said in many cases they were bound by federal guidelines that required banks to inspect all repairs and ensure that contractors were licensed.

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Last week, federal agencies relaxed some of those regulations, giving banks discretion to release more money.

Lila Shams, whose Oceanside house remains gutted nearly four months after being flooded, said being forced to wait for JPMorgan Chase to release her insurance settlement is a painful coda to a long line of painful ordeals since the storm.

"What could possible happen next?" said Shams, 29, a nurse. "When are the locusts coming?"

With Joe Ryan

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