In the Wake of Hurricane…Sandy

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and with the hurricane season not yet over, insurance experts are dispensing valuable advice in the media about filing claims. Typically, they advise homeowners to file without delay, photograph all storm damage, document expenses incurred from urgent repairs and relocation costs, keep a log of all communications with insurers, and so on.

All of this is good advice, tried and true. What they may not mention is how long it will take to secure compensation. (Or what the homeowner considers fair compensation, which is often not the same as the insurer’s idea.) It wouldn’t surprise anyone that the process could take weeks and months.

What is, however, shocking and deeply worrisome, is that when victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma put in their claims, they will have to get in line behind the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

That’s right. Almost five years after Sandy devastated communities in New York and New Jersey, over a thousand families are still fighting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over their flood claims, according to the government’s own reports.

FEMA is being accused of dragging out the misery of the recovery process beyond anyone’s imagination.

It took Congress to twist the arms of FEMA officials to get them to reopen the Sandy claims process in 2015 due to numerous complaints about their handling of the matter. Some 2,000 people took the agency to court over sloppy evaluations and underassessments.

Perhaps it was, most of all, the revelation that in some cases reports submitted by field inspectors were rewritten by insurers that prompted FEMA to take the unprecedented step of notifying all the Sandy victims that they could request a review of their claims. About 19,500 policyholders did so, resulting in an additional $396 million paid out over the initial $8.2 billion to about 144,000 claimants.

To date, approximately 1,100 cases have yet to be concluded.

“It has been a struggle every step of the way,” August Matteis, a Washington, D.C., lawyer whose firm is representing about 1,200 policyholders, told the Associated Press. “FEMA is still fighting us tooth and nail for every penny.”

The sorry performance of FEMA in the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 was a national scandal which led to an agency overhaul. In the decade since, its capacity for swift deployment of personnel to stricken areas, for damage assessment and getting help where needed and when needed, and its authority to coordinate other federal agencies in emergency response, has all been improved.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Chris P. Currie, director of homeland security for the Government Accountability Office, which has been monitoring FEMA’s progress, as saying: “I think it’s safe to say you see a lot of the reforms in action. There are always going to be challenges getting people where they need to go, but those resources were in place,” he said, referring to FEMA’s response to Harvey and Irma.

But the focus has been on delivering immediate assistance to victims in the disaster areas. FEMA’s talent for mismanagement when it comes to compensation for damage caused by hurricanes seems to have survived those reforms.

Perhaps FEMA needs to undergo another round of inspection and adjustment. Perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong not only with the procedures of adjudicating claims, but with the attitudes of the officials in charge.

Why filing a claim for storm damage with the federal government should be a bitter, adversarial process is not clear.

To be sure, the government and private insurers must check the veracity of each claim, and it is only to be expected that some assessments will be disputed. But to prolong the agony for five years is to take bureaucracy to a level of inefficiency and obstinacy that approaches systematic harassment of American citizens.

In any case, the lesson for the survivors of Harvey and Irma is obvious: They have to gird themselves for a similar struggle.

Submitting claims speedily and documenting everything may not be enough. Policyholders have to be ready to seek legal advice and representation in dealing with the people in Washington who are there — ostensibly, at least — to help them.

At the risk of laying another level of bureaucracy on top of what already exists, Congress might want to consider creating a forum to mediate such claims and to step in when the process reaches a certain point after the storm waters have receded, and the victims are still swamped by an unyielding officialdom.

That should be a last resort. Much better, though it might be asking too much, if the inspectors and adjustors would just show a little more compassion, a little more reasonableness, the country could save a great deal of time, trouble and money on paperwork and courts.