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Flood insurance review plagued with delays

Homeowner Nicole Rauch, left, of Lindenhurst, receives consultation

Homeowner Nicole Rauch, left, of Lindenhurst, receives consultation from Touro Law intern Jeannette Villeda, center, and Melissa H. Luckman, right, practitioner in residence, on Aug. 25, 2015, during Touro Law School's disaster relief clinic at the Babylon Town Hall in Lindenhurst.

The federal government's sweeping effort to review flood insurance claims suspected of being underpaid after superstorm Sandy is beset with delays, leaving homeowners waiting months to learn the outcome of their appeals.

When it launched the initiative in May, the National Flood Insurance Program said the process would be streamlined, allowing homeowners to have claims examined within three months. Five months later, more than half the 17,000 storm victims who requested reviews have waited longer than that, with the process extending into four or even five months for upward of 5,500 victims of the 2012 storm.

"They are going much too slowly on these claims," Sen. Chuck Schumer said. "These people have waited long enough."

On Thursday, Schumer and fellow New York Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand sent a letter to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the flood insurance program, saying the delays were unacceptable.

In response to questions about the delays, FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said the agency had recently doubled the number of adjusters reviewing claims to speed up the process. They are now working seven days a week, including day and night shifts, he said.

"These policyholders have already been through enough," Lemaitre said. "We are dead set on getting through these claims as quickly as possible and have taken action to make that happen."

FEMA launched the review program after scores of homeowners accused adjusters and engineers of forging documents to improperly deny settlements. The allegations have led to a criminal probe and the departure of two top officials at the flood insurance program.

As of Monday, FEMA had finished reviewing nearly 1,400 of the 17,000 claims. The agency has determined that roughly 60 percent had been underpaid by an average $15,000. Fewer than 200 have received payments.

When the flood insurance program's former director, Brad Kieserman, announced that FEMA would review tens of thousands of Sandy claims, he pledged to design a process that would be easy for storm victims to navigate. In the end, however, homeowners say it is as bureaucratic as any other government-run relief program they have experienced since Sandy.

Homeowners complain of being passed from adjuster to adjuster, paperwork being lost, having to repeatedly submit the same documents and waiting months to hear whether they will wind up with a bigger settlement.

"The promises that Kieserman made early on are just not being followed through on by FEMA," said Melissa Luckman, who directs Touro Law Center's disaster relief clinic in Central Islip.

Celeste Janelis, whose home was inundated with 3 feet of water by Sandy, estimates she was underpaid by $30,000 on her flood insurance claim. She registered for the review process nearly five months ago, on May 29, but has yet to be told the outcome.

"You meet all the deadlines, and then you sit and wait," said Janelis, a junior high school teacher who lives in Babylon.

Speaking privately, a FEMA official said many of the delays stem from homeowners taking weeks to submit sworn affidavits and other documents. The agency made it clear from the beginning that policyholders had 30 days to submit documentation. As it works to speed up the process, FEMA is trying to determine how to proceed when homeowners miss that deadline, the official said.

Schumer and Gillibrand have urged the agency to be flexible, saying it can take weeks to gather documents three years after the storm.

"There are too many New Yorkers who still don't have the resources they need to rebuild their homes," Gillibrand said. "FEMA needs to deliver on its promises."


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