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Editorial: Stop holding up recovery checks for Sandy victims

Flood damaged streets are viewed in the Rockaway

Flood damaged streets are viewed in the Rockaway section of Queens where the historic boardwalk was washed away due to superstorm Sandy. (Oct. 31, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

It's been 109 days since superstorm Sandy hammered Long Island and our region, and thousands of homeowners still cannot get the funds they need to rebuild their homes.

It's not because these responsible residents lacked insurance. These homeowners had flood coverage, sold through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and administered by private insurance companies, or they had regular homeowners policies that covered the damage they sustained.

It's not, for once, because of politics. Unlike much of the $60 billion in federal funding that will rebuild our region post-Sandy, none of the money involved in these particular claims was held up by Congress.

It's because banks and insurance companies are failing to expedite the process and get these people, and communities, back on their feet. FEMA and the states need to push harder to change that.

Earlier this week, a FEMA spokesman said the agency had settled just 64 percent of the 56,324 flood claims filed in New York State, leaving about 20,000 families waiting for full payments. Some homeowners have gotten partial payments, while others haven't seen a cent. Many dipped into their own pockets to pay for repairs, but for others that isn't an option. While the federal government backs the risk in the National Flood Insurance Program, private insurers administer the policies, keeping about $1 billion of the $2.3 billion collected each year to provide the service.

For another set of New Yorkers, the problem isn't the home insurance companies. They've already paid out. It's banks and mortgage servicers refusing to endorse the checks, which is required to ensure that insurance payouts actually go to fix damaged homes with mortgages.

Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office said an investigation has shown that these banks and mortgage servicers continue to hold up more than 6,000 checks, many of them desperately needed, and homeowners cannot complete repairs because of it.

Banks have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure homes with mortgages, many of them guaranteed by taxpayers through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, are actually repaired. But according to a New York Department of Financial Services investigation, the money can and should be moving much faster. To improve the situation, that agency is pushing a new set of guidelines that lightens up on repair documentation and forces streamlining of the process to get storm victims the money they need.

Clearly, the scope of Sandy damage is such that responding to it has challenged insurers, financial institutions and FEMA. But responding to large-scale damage is, in some sense, the reason FEMA and insurance companies exist. If they can't do this one thing well, when we need them to, changes are clearly called for.

As for the mortgage holders and servicers, the restoration of these assets ought to be a very high priority, for the safety of their balance sheets, as well as the needs of their customers.