Hurricane Sandy victims struggle to regain normalcy

Hurricane Sandy damage / AP
May 12, 2013

Frustration has now turned to anger for many Hurricane Sandy victims after living in limbo for more than six months, and they say the slow response and inaction by the Obama administration is taking its toll.

Sandy victims continue to fight with insurers to get a fair payout for the damage they sustained. Flood insurance claims through the National Flood Insurance Program, administered by FEMA, are slow in being paid out and are falling far short of what victims need to rebuild.

Residents feel the government is acting as a roadblock to the rebuilding efforts.

Monmouth Beach resident Dan Burke lost the entire first floor of his home. He said despite the positive media coverage praising President Barack Obama’s response to the storm, the government has been extremely slow and inadequate.

Burke paid premiums like many Sandy victims for flood insurance. He’s now been offered $56,000 to rebuild his home. The actual cost for him to rebuild is $270,000. He has already spent $25,000 for the demolition and mold remediation of his home, which leaves him $31,000 to cover more than $200,000 in damages.

Burke is a local advertising executive who ran his business from his house. That business has been severely impacted.

"Every day is Groundhog Day. I keep saying today will be the day I’ll get a response from the insurance company," said Burke. So far that day has not come. He estimates that he may be able to return home in six months. He has now hired an insurance adjuster to fight to get the adequate amount due him.

Meanwhile his expenses continue to soar. He is still paying the mortgage on his ravaged home and now has to pay $2,600 in rent. When asked how he is doing it, he said he is living off his savings.

"I know people who are borrowing from their retirement just to get back in to their homes," Burke said. No one in his immediate neighborhood of 40 homes has moved back.

Burke is unsure why the government is taking so long to settle insurance claims.

"They are terribly inefficient and incredibly slow in dealing with claims," Burke said. "There are at least two to three natural disasters in our country a year. You’d think they’d have it down by now. But I’m sure if something flares up in the Middle East, we’ll be the first one to send money there, to people who hate us."

Burke is not alone in his frustration. Several Sandy victims came in for supplies during a Free Beacon reporter’s visit to the Highlands Resolution Center, a makeshift relief center at the local firehouse in the town of Highlands, N.J.

Carmen Jamgochian, the owner of the town’s Irish Pub, the Claddagh, was one of eight Sandy victims who stopped by the center for relief supplies in a half-hour period. She said she is still several months away from reopening her business. "I’m taking it one day at a time," she said.

Jamgochian said it took approximately five months to get money from the insurance company. When asked what assistance FEMA gave her to reopen her business, she shook her head and said none. "It’s a waste of time for business owners."

She said FEMA offered her a loan with a 4 percent interest rate, which she said was higher than what some banks were offering.

"FEMA only helped the destitute," Jamgochian said, adding that she applied for a Small Business Administration loan and was turned down.

Jamgochian is vowing to rebuild in the face of such obstacles. "I have to reopen my business, it’s good for the town. Twenty employees are out of work, and many live in the town." She said she keeps fielding calls from her 20 employees who are asking when they can return to work.

She considers herself fortunate and hopes to hold a big grand-opening party at the pub soon despite her losses. "We’re very lucky. We’re not homeless. I thank God every day for our little blessings."

Edie Moskowitz, one of the workers manning the relief center, has encountered many Sandy victims.

She told the Washington Free Beacon of the impact of Sandy: Highlands was devastated, with 90 percent of the downtown area homes and businesses flooded. She estimates only 30 percent have returned. Workers at Borough Hall that was flooded out are now working out of trailers.

"There are a lot of struggles with insurance which I am hearing from a lot of victims," Moskowitz said.

"Every day, you just move on," Moskowitz said. "Hopefully at the end, everyone will become whole again. It’s a matter of how long it will be." She said the needs of Sandy victims have changed: Before, they needed water and food; now they need building supplies.

The grassroots organization Stop FEMA Now continues to grow and hold meetings. The group is fighting the elevation maps, fighting the drastically higher flood insurance premiums that are on the horizon, and trying to repeal or dramatically change the Biggert-Waters Act.

Two hudred people attended its most recent meeting. A local television station interviewed victims who stood among the wreckage of their homes, and their anger and frustration were palpable.

"We’ve gone past frustration, and now it’s turned into anger," said George Kasimos, the founder of Stop FEMA Now. "Are they not prepared for emergencies? … President Obama flew in and hasn’t been back to New Jersey."

Kasimos said homes on the ocean haven’t even received insurance money to be demolished.

FEMA officials said they are doing their best to help life return to normal.

"FEMA’s top priority is to provide assistance to those in need as quickly as possible, while also meeting our requirements under the law," a FEMA spokesperson said in an email statement to the Free Beacon. "To do this, FEMA must work with its private sector, write-your-own insurance (WYO) company partners who sell flood insurance under their own names and are responsible for the adjustment of their policy holders’ claims."

"There’s no accountability in government," Burke said. He also questioned the out-of-state adjusters who have been flown in to assess people’s homes and are unfamiliar with labor costs and building materials in the Northeast. Their offer to him didn’t include HVAC system, hot water heater, windows, and a host of other high-dollar items needed for him to rebuild.

"I would love to know how they are incentivizing public adjusters to come out and lowball to save insurance companies in paying out claims," Burke said.

"FEMA will not be satisfied until policyholders have received payments for all covered losses," the FEMA spokesperson wrote. They indicated policyholders should call FEMA directly if they have concerns. "When a claim or any part of a claim is denied by the insurer, the policyholder may also appeal that denial directly to FEMA."

"According to polling estimates from the WYO companies, of the more than 143,000 claims that have been filed, more than 97 percent have been closed and approximately $7.3 billion has been paid out to survivors," the FEMA spokesperson wrote.