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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

FEMA's bungled response to superstorm Sandy needs scrutiny

Flooding from superstorm Sandy damaged many homes on

Flooding from superstorm Sandy damaged many homes on Long Island in late October 2012. Credit: Ed Betz

It would be like shooting fish in a barrel to point out that it took the Federal Emergency Management Authority far too long to address allegations that forged engineering reports were used to deny superstorm Sandy claims.

But let's take a shot anyway.

The storm was in 2012; FEMA was warned about forged engineering reports in 2013; a federal magistrate, Gary Brown, found that forgeries may have been widespread in 2014.

A week after Brown's ruling, FEMA confirmed that it was investigating.

That was before a Newsday report that the New York State attorney general's office had initiated a criminal probe -- but after the filing of class-action lawsuits and scathing criticism from the four U.S. senators representing New York and New Jersey.

Last weekend, FEMA began brokering talks to build some mechanism for settling claims for property owners who filed suits accusing insurance companies of using fraudulent documents in claims.

Even so long after the storm, that's welcome. So is the view expressed last week by FEMA's chief negotiator, Brad J. Kieserman: "I'm here in New York -- not Washington. And I am committed to getting this done," he told Newsday reporter Joe Ryan.

The negotiations are ongoing. In addition to working toward resolving some 1,500 outstanding lawsuits filed by homeowners in New York and elsewhere who alleged they were underpaid, the sides could craft ways to help homeowners who were underpaid but did not sue.

In short, after months of FEMA stalling -- and years of waiting by frustrated Sandy victims -- some resolution could be in sight.

Back in December, FEMA announced a series of reforms to ensure that National Flood Insurance Program policyholders in the future would not be underpaid. Although the insurance program is government-run, FEMA hires private companies to handle policies and adjust claims.

Reforms to the program are necessary for the sake of future storm victims. But for reforms to work -- and, more importantly, to help restore the public's trust in FEMA -- some airing of what went so wrong after superstorm Sandy, and why, is necessary.

That's why allegations about fraudulent documents, even if negotiations between FEMA and lawyers representing homeowners prove fruitful, should be addressed publicly, rather than be hidden.

Last week, some of that evidence was slated to be heard by a judge. But that hearing was put off as the sides continued negotiating.

Meanwhile, a team of state investigators raided offices of a Uniondale engineering firm as part of a separate criminal probe into allegations that some documents were changed as a way to deny insurance claims.

There's a lot going on.

But for Sandy victims -- should negotiations prove fruitful -- vindication and relief would be better late than never.

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