As a fourth-degree black belt, Vincent Domingo is used to formidable foes. But the Massapequa resident admits he was no match for superstorm Sandy.
Five feet of water, two ruined cars, sodden clothes and furniture, and the inconvenience of being out of a home for seven months were bad enough. But the real fight began, Domingo said, as he tried to recoup $37,000 that he poured into his two-story Peconic Drive home to get it back in shape.
Four years after the water receded, he’s still fighting.
“I got hit with two storms — that’s Hurricane Sandy and the storm with FEMA,” said the 48-year-old, who owns Tiger Schulmann Martial Arts in Garden City. “The red tape you have to go through just to get your claims and insurance money to get your house rebuilt is another storm.”
Domingo and his family are among the storm victims who tapped insurance policies that predated Sandy in October 2012 but which they say have failed them — even though the policies were backed by the U.S. government. They are in a class apart from those who sought help through the state-run NY Rising program set up months after the storm.
“Our clients aren’t giving up,” said August Matteis, a partner in the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Weisbrod Matteis & Copley, which is handling about 1,300 FEMA appeals related to Sandy — including those of Domingo and other Long Islanders. “FEMA’s strategy is they know people are exhausted and broke, so their strategy is to bleed people out and try to get them to take a little bit of money and go away.”
Not so, FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.
The agency acknowledges that the private insurers it used to broker National Flood Insurance Program policies lowballed Sandy claims. But FEMA made key changes to correct flawed determinations, he said.
“We have been, for the past almost two years, taking several significant actions to make sure that folks who were covered with flood insurance after Sandy were treated fairly, paid every dollar that they were owed, and reform the program to make sure it continues to be a program that puts policyholders first,” Lemaitre said.
The Donnis family, residents of Surf Street in Lindenhurst, got nary a drop of floodwater in tropical storm Irene and multiple nor’easters. So, when Sandy approached, they thought their home would stay dry.
But water surged from the ocean up 800 feet of pavement and ruined their first floor.
Surely, Donato and Joann Donnis thought, the NFIP policy they’d had for four decades would pay in short order. Wrong again.
“They shortchanged me,” said Donato Donnis, 64, who is waiting for about $100,000 more to reach the full value of his claim.
Donnis said he first was paid 35 percent of what he was owed. He now is contesting the agency’s award after FEMA reviewed the claim and found it underpaid him by $24,000. Donnis hopes to gain more in a third review, in which an independent adjuster evaluates the claim.
The Donnises also are clients of Matteis’ firm.
Lemaitre noted that FEMA set up the Sandy claims-review process after the agency acknowledged in February 2015 that it had been offering low awards. The move also came after pressure from New York’s senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and their New Jersey counterparts.
Its remedies included a pledge to review some 144,000 claims in New York, New Jersey and other places Sandy struck and make additional award offers to those deemed eligible. Policyowners like the Donnises who rejected a second award could opt to have their cases reviewed by an independent, neutral party.
Of the original 144,000 claims, 19,000 were deemed eligible for reconsideration, Lemaitre said. In about 1,030 of the reconsidered cases, the increased award has been rejected and the homeowner has opted for review by an independent, neutral party — as Donato Donnis plans to do.
Lemaitre said last week that 190 neutral reviews had been completed, and in 181 cases, FEMA accepted the reviewers’ recommendations. Awards totaling $2.8 million have been made to those who went through the neutral reviews, with amounts ranging from $306 to $134,761.
“It’s been far too long that many folks have had to wait for the money they are owed,” Lemaitre said. “For us, it’s important that we do this right and make sure policyholders get every dollar they are owed under their policy.”
That’s not the impression held by the DiGiovannis of Copiague.
“I think the process is extremely lengthy and certainly not fair to the victims of a catastrophe like Sandy,” said Robert DiGiovanni, 75, owner of Mava Industries Inc. and Steelcraft Folding Gate Corp.
He filed a claim for $80,000 and was offered $4,670, which he rejected. He filed for review and was offered $25,000 this month, which he also rebuffed. Now he awaits a neutral review.
“All this money that my wife and I did to put our home back together again is out-of-pocket,” he said, adding that his pier alone cost $20,000 to repair. “That is one big issue I have with FEMA. We got whacked. I mean really whacked. FEMA should say, ‘We’ve got to take care of these people.’ It’s not fair.”