Storming at FEMA

It’s now three years since Hurricane Sandy, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) still looks like it’s just been hit over the head.

The process of reviewing insurance coverage claims for homes destroyed or damaged by the hurricane is still, well … in process. It’s hard to believe, but some 16,000 claims are still under review!

The financial and emotional hardships of putting lives back together in the wake of such devastation has been compounded by a bureaucracy that seems dedicated to proving beyond doubt the most strident allegations against federal gigantism.

In a classic case of bureaucratic redundancy, New York City homeowners were subjected to multiple inspections of the same damaged sites, as engineers not only from FEMA but also the city’s Build It Back program, the city Department of Buildings, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development came to make their assessments. The resulting miscommunications and conflicting information added more layers of hair-pulling obfuscation.

And if a homeowner wanted to try to reason with somebody, and tried calling, say, the FEMA offices, they often found there was nobody to talk to, nobody who was designated to discuss their appeals directly.

But it’s not just a matter of governmental ineptitude or red tape. Private enterprise has made its own unworthy contribution to this mess. Much of the delay has been due to charges that private companies have denied the flood insurance claims of homeowners battered by Sandy based on fraudulently altered engineering reports.

In other words, some of the people who were sent to assess the damage determined that there was none, or significantly less than demonstrably occurred. That has led to the resubmission of thousands of claims, and another round of review.

While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, storm damage either happened or it didn’t. It is verifiable and documentable. But the process of making the facts stick turned out to be wearying and rather “unbeautiful.”

In the wake of the allegations, thousands of claims were resubmitted for another review to determine if their cases were properly handled, and whether their initial claims were underpaid by the National Flood Insurance Program. Aggrieved homeowners are still waiting for decisions and fair compensation.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposed Flood Insurance Transparency and Accountability Act of 2015 may be too late to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, but it may help disaster victims in the future.

The bill addresses all of the abovementioned grievances:

It would require FEMA to make all related documents available to the NFIP policyholder, including draft engineering reports, so that the policyholder can prove his case when initial assessments have been fraudulently altered to deprive him of coverage. Unscrupulous businesses will no doubt find other ways to bilk the consumer, but at least this will force them to work harder for their ill-gotten gains.

A remedy is provided for the “we are sorry but there is no one here authorized to answer your question” syndrome: a requirement that there be a direct point of contact at FEMA to discuss their appeals. This would not guarantee satisfaction, of course, but it might mitigate some of the mental anguish, if properly implemented.

Another provision forcing FEMA to be more responsive is the proposal to provide claimants with clear rules, forms and deadlines. This would include the effective date of the denial, the reason for it, and so on.

In addition, Gillibrand’s bill would extend coverage beyond water damage to so-called earth movement damage, which includes erosion. Many of the Sandy claimants were turned down because the damage was caused by “earth movement,” even when the movement was caused by flooding.

These all seem to be common-sense reforms. It’s unfortunate that it took a Hurricane Sandy and three years to get us here.

Why it took so long is something of a mystery to us. Maybe it just took that long for the problem to come to the attention of the lawmakers. We suspect there are also certain people out there who like the loopholes the way they are.

In any case, the hurricane season is upon us once again, and it’s more than about time to wrap up the Sandy claims and get ready for the next storm — and taking care of its victims in a way that will make us feel proud and not ashamed.