By Sharon G. Jonas
Over a dozen victims of Hurricane Sandy who believe they were underpaid on their flood insurance claims gathered earlier this month at Temple Beth Am in Merrick to learn how they could receive further reparations from FEMA for damage from the storm.
Representing the Washington D.C.-based law firm of Weisbrod Matteis & Copley, James A. Fussell, in conjunction with Garden City based The Fink Law Firm PC, explained that FEMA, admitting to fraud such as changing engineer reports, is making the unprecedented move to reopen claims. The deadline for filing is Tuesday, September 15.
Fussell explained that FEMA stated it will review existing claims on file, suggesting they will use the information previously submitted. Submitting new evidence, which will result in a getting a new adjuster’s report and a greater chance at recovering money, was strongly encouraged by Fussell, who called it the “A-1 most important thing you can do.” A response from FEMA should take about 90-120 days.
To open a new file, the first step is to call FEMA and verbally request to reopen a claim. FEMA states that callers have 14 days after this point to submit any new evidence. Having information—such as copies of engineering reports, new independent adjuster’s reports, affidavits, photos and receipts—prior to the call was strongly suggested.
LOOK FOR PREVIOUS FEMA OVERSIGHTS
Common oversights by FEMA that Sandy victims should be looking for from previous FEMA reports include: underestimating the square footage of a room; failing to include damaged rooms; replacement of siding but not the water-damaged sheathing beneath it; replacement of only-lower kitchen cabinets (insured are entitled to replacement of all cabinetry, even those not water damaged); failure to include sales tax in repayment costs; removal of debris and reclamation costs, such as the need for fans to vent a house; the cost of waste for items such as leftover sheetrock, which often must be purchased in sizes larger than actually used; and costs to add electrical outlets, because many walls were shortchanged on them.
Attendees were told to look for damages that initially may not have been apparent. A wet sub-floor may not have been noticed, but top floors may later start to buckle or become wavy. Corrosive flood waters from Hurricane Sandy, which contained both salt and sewage, are known to cause significant damage over time to electrical systems and wiring.
For those fearing that a new report will change their status to “substantially damaged,” resulting in the town enforcing the raising of their house, Fussell suggested to get a note from local authorities confirming their house is not substantially damaged, to avoid this risk.
“Fight them for what you are entitled to,” said Fussell. If needed, he said to fight for an extension of the 14-day submission of evidence limit. “And understand that money received can also be applied to paying a mortgage, if you have one.”
“Out of 144,000 potential clients, only 9,000 so far have been reopened,” Mr. Fussell continued. “So a lot of people out there aren’t informed or just don’t want to mess with it.”
He encouraged ignoring FEMA’s “scare tactic” that warns that new claims might uncover overpayments and result in FEMA demanding money back. “Out of the 500 people we represent now, we’ve not seen one person who has been overpaid.”
To date, he said he also knows of no one who has yet received an additional check from FEMA for a re-opened case.
An audience member who questioned if the expense, time and effort would be worth doing an updated claim was told that each individual needs to make that determination. Underpayments on approximately 200 new claims through Fussell’s firm have averaged about $50,000 per person, minus a lawyer contingency fee, typically 1/3 of the money received.
A lawyer can support clients by handling calls, following up on claims and fighting for rights, sometimes on a group basis by insisting that clients facing the same issue all be repaid.
Mr. Fussell said his firm, which also works on a contingency basis, is charging less than normal.
Those wishing to seek legal assistance for FEMA reparations in a group-action setting from Fussell’s firm, or with the Long Island firm of Fink Law Firm PC in Garden City, can contact 1-800-604-4830 or go online to www.sandywmc.com.