By Madina Toure
Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency has announced that it in the process of reviewing flood damage claims filed by homeowners affected by Hurricane Sandy, lawmakers representing hard-hit areas in Queens say the agency should have acted sooner.
State Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) recalled that last year FEMA asked his constituents to repay the agency for overpayments it made to them totaling thousands of dollars for some of his constituents. The agency eventually stopped pressuring them to pay it back, he said.
The superstorm devastated the Rockaways, particularly Breezy Point and Belle Harbor, as well as Broad Channel. Other parts of southern Queens also had extensive damage.
Although the current investigation is addressing the fact that many assessments and engineering reports were incorrect or falsified, Addabbo said the agency should use its past mistakes to make changes internally.
“FEMA has to look internally and make the changes to their procedures so that they don’t make these mistakes in the future. These are two big mistakes,” he said, noting that his constituents “lost everything in Sandy.”
There are currently 2,000 people in litigation with insurance companies, according to Rafael Lemaitre, a FEMA spokesman.
The agency is currently working to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which is tasked with reducing the impact of flooding on private and public structures by offering affordable insurance for property owners and telling communities to adopt floodplain management regulations, to compensate individuals who have been wronged by insurance companies.
“As part of our work to reform the flood insurance program, we’re establishing a process to ensure that any policyholders who feel they have been either defrauded or underpaid have a process to ensure that they receive every dollar they are legitimately owed,” Lemaitre said.
The reforms to the flood insurance program include everything from relationships with insurance companies to how appeals and claims are handled, according to Lemaitre.
David Miller, head of NFIP, resigned, and one of his top deputies retired, he said.
Lemaitre would not give details on the process as it is currently being established and said he could not comment on ongoing litigation.
But he clarified that only claims that needed to be scrutinized would undergo review.
“Many of these claims were adjudicated successfully so not everyone is going to need to have their case reviewed,” he said.
State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park), for his part, said FEMA does not have the ability to do proper oversight.
He has proposed a New York Flood Insurance Association, a joint association between the state and private flood insurance companies, that would take FEMA out of the equation and hold private insurance companies accountable and make them take on some of the risk.
“It took FEMA too long to respond to Sandy and now it has taken way too long for FEMA to get it right,” Goldfeder said. “It’s been revealed there’s been fraud and abuse by NFIP and by private insurance companies and I think the only way for real change is to create a new system.”
Queens Republican Party Chairman Bob Turner, a former congressman who lives in Breezy Point, lost his home during Hurricane Sandy when it burned down.
Although he has not had to deal with FEMA, he said he hopes residents affected by the matter get the assistance they need.
“FEMA, at least to their credit, has agreed to reopen these cases and take a look,” Turner said. “I hope many of the people who have been wrongfully denied their coverage they paid for and expected will get a quick resolution to this.”
Back in February, FEMA cancelled debts that seniors at Belle Harbor Manor, an assisted-living facility in Rockaway, incurred after Hurricane Sandy. The seniors incurred the debts because of an administrative error with FEMA’s response to Hurricane Sandy victims and survivors in 2012.
But last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that FEMA approved more than $28 million in funding for flood mitigation and resiliency initiatives at LaGuardia to protect the airport from future storms.
FEMA also allocated nearly $500 million to repair the boardwalk in Rockaway, almost a million square feet of which was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at mtour