For Debora Pointer, Hurricane
Isabel is still raging.
Her first nightmare came Sept. 18, 2003, when
windswept floodwaters crashed into her Gloucester County home.
this house so bad that toilets moved across the bathrooms," she said.
second nightmare has been nearly every day since then as she watches mold
overtake her home while she pleads with federal flood adjusters for a fair
"Every day there's something new," she said during
a recent walk through her moldy home. "The whole thing is shifting. I'm losing
Pointer is one of a handful of local hurricane victims who
are fighting with the federal government to get enough money to rebuild or
replace their flood-damaged homes. Several government agencies continue to
investigate how the Federal Emergency Management Administration handled
Hurricane Isabel claims, while 174 Virginia households head into the winter
still living in FEMA trailers because their homes are unlivable.
and about 15 other local victims have hired an independent claims adjuster named
Dan Montgomery, who travels around the country to work for people who say they
deserve larger settlements than their insurance company or the federal
government is willing to offer. He charges his clients a percentage of any
additional insurance money they receive.
FEMA oversees a national pot of
money that comes from flood insurance premiums paid by homeowners who have
policies through private companies. The companies get to keep a percentage of
the flood insurance premiums.
Normally, the homeowner's insurance agency
responds first to flood claims. If consumers are not satisfied with their
settlements, they can ask FEMA to send adjusters to review the claims. Adjusters
use computer software and knowledge about building materials to recommend to
FEMA or insurance companies how much storm repairs should
Montgomery says claims adjusters hired by the federal government
were negotiating with him until Hurricane Charley hit Florida on Aug. 13. At
that point, he says, the adjusters headed south to Florida and left behind
administrators who were unwilling to budge on insurance
Montgomery intends to keep fighting until his clients get a fair
settlement. "But what about the rest who got screwed over who didn't have a Dan
Montgomery?" he asks.
Butch Kinerney, a FEMA spokesman, said the agency
doesn't hire heavy guns to try to lowball people on flood damage.
not what we do," he said. "However, there are certain laws we want to abide
One point of contention is whether federal laws require flood
insurance payments to return hurricane victims' homes to their pre-storm
"According to the law as signed by Congress, the language that
says flood insurance makes you whole was taken out," Kinerney said. "FEMA has to
abide by that legislation."
But the federal government, through a
contractor called Computer Sciences Corp., is training insurance agents to tell
prospective buyers that their flood insurance will restore their homes to
pre-storm condition, said Steve Kanstoroom, a Maryland victims advocate.
Kanstoroom has a Web site, http://www.femainfo.us/, that tracks FEMA
Although sales agents tell customers that their coverage will
restore damaged homes, the claims adjusters - the people who help decide how
much money victims get after a flood - are trained to settle as quickly and
cheaply as possible, he said.
"I would describe it as a bait-and-switch,"
said Kanstoroom, who recently attended a training session for
After a flood of complaints from Isabel victims, Congress told
FEMA in March to take the unusual step of reviewing each hurricane claim to make
sure the settlement was fair.
FEMA contracts its adjusting work - as it
does its training work - to Computer Sciences Corp. The company did $17.2
billion in business in the 2004 fiscal year, with 43 percent of its revenue
coming from the federal government. Computer Sciences Corp. does information
technology work, outsourcing and consulting for customers that range from the
Defense Department to chemical companies to banking firms.
said some claims adjusters were misusing the computer software that estimates
the cost of the damage. Instead of estimating repair costs, the software
estimated construction cost. It is generally cheaper to build a new home than to
repair an existing one.
Kinerney said FEMA and Computer Sciences Corp.
have worked hard to improve training.
"There were some problems with the
first set of claims," he said.
Adjusters come from across the United
States, but they need to learn about pricing differences that vary from ZIP code
to ZIP code. To attract the most qualified people, FEMA offered more pay to
prospective flood adjusters to make sure it was offering competitive
In March, Computer Sciences Corp. sent out 23,700 letters - one
to everyone who had filed a flood insurance claim after Hurricane Isabel. It
heard back from 2,185 people who wanted their claims reviewed. Out of that
number, 951, or 44 percent, received additional payments totaling $8.2 million,
said Kinerney, the FEMA spokesman.
FEMA says only 20 unsettled claims
from Hurricane Isabel remain, but FEMA considers a case settled when it makes
its final offer. Many storm victims who received a final settlement letter from
FEMA are still pleading with the agency.
U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and
Paul Sarbanes of Maryland have asked the inspector general and U.S. Attorney
General John Ashcroft to look into the matter.
Last month, they wrote a
letter to Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which
includes FEMA. The senators said they were "deeply concerned" that FEMA's
director halted an independent review of the Isabel complaints.
no one from the Virginia delegation has asked for an investigation.
Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Gloucester, met recently with Montgomery and Kanstoroom,
said Chris Connelly, Davis' chief of staff.
"Certainly she is concerned
by this," Connelly said. Davis plans to address Montgomery's and Kanstoroom's
concerns next week, after she returns from a trip to the Middle
Kinerney said FEMA wants to settle claims as fairly as
"We don't want to stall things more than necessary," he said.
"We don't want any mean wishes for anyone."
But Jeff and Loretta
MacDonald's home on Little Florida Road in Poquoson sure looks and smells like a
bad dream. A scented candle didn't cover up the musty mold smell while the
couple recently talked about the flood damage they say insurance has not
Their flood insurance policy paid about $30,000, but Montgomery
estimates it would cost at least twice that to fix the damaged floors,
foundation and walls. He contends FEMA did not send an engineer to determine
structural damage to the home until August, nearly a year after Isabel hit.
Afterward, based on the engineer's report, the couple said, they got an
additional $1,970 to fix damaged piers and beams in their home's
It's not nearly enough, Montgomery and the MacDonalds
"We are going to have to go into debt deeper than we should
have," said Jeff MacDonald, a self-employed landscaper.
A trailer is
parked in their front yard, but they don't use it. They feel it's safe for their
two sons, ages 11 and 6, to sleep in the upstairs bedrooms. The parents sleep in
their first-floor bedroom, even though the ruined floor has bowed under their
bed's weight. Wood floors throughout the house are warped and springy to the
step, and some boards have been replaced with outdoor deck planks.
couple hired Montgomery in May after one of Loretta's coworkers on the night
shift at Farm Fresh told them Montgomery had helped others get more from their
"We've paid our premiums, and it seems like the insurance
company hasn't wanted to hold up their end of the deal," Jeff MacDonald said. "I
feel like I had a contract with them."
Deborah Pointer in Gloucester said
her adjuster came soon after the storm, but the results weren't much
"They're still trying to go by the original adjuster who was out
two days after the flood at 10 p.m. with a flashlight because there was no
electricity," Pointer said. That was before the mold grew, before the house
resettled - cracking walls and sagging floors.
After a month of waiting
for some repair money, the Pointers broke down and bought a trailer. They
trucked their belongings to storage. Three months after the hurricane, the
Pointers got her first insurance money - an advance of $5,000 around
Part of the nightmare was trying to find a contractor. They
were in high demand after the storm. And with little or no insurance settlement,
no contractors seemed interested in helping Pointer.
As the new year
approached, she gave up on her insurance company and went to FEMA's National
Flood Insurance Program. "I can't tell you how many times I called FEMA and
said, 'Just help me,' " she said.
The largest insurance offer she
received at that point was about $38,000, plus $30,000 to help her raise her
home above the flood level. Over the winter, Pointer was looking for more help
and heard that Poquoson residents had stories similar to hers. She called a
disaster recovery volunteer in Poquoson, who referred her to
This past summer, Pointer said, the National Flood Insurance
Program offered her a $166,000 settlement. She paid $1,700 for another
engineering estimate while Montgomery fought for the $200,000 maximum settlement
allowed under her policy.
In July, Pointer left for Europe to visit
family, thinking that everything would be taken care of.
"You get hope,"
she said. "You move forward, and it never works out."
While Pointer was
away, the National Flood Insurance Program told Montgomery it was denying all of
his remaining claims.
"I never dreamed that they would deny the whole
claim again," he said. "You have no idea the pain I go through in telling a
client something like this."
In an attempt to document FEMA's change of
heart, Montgomery points to two letters sent from FEMA to one of his clients in
Poquoson. A letter dated Aug. 4 states: "It has been determined than an
adjustment to your claim total may be allowed under the terms and conditions of
your flood insurance policy."
A subsequent letter from FEMA, dated Sept.
13, states: "Based upon our review it has been determined that there are no
additional items eligible for payment under your policy and that no further
reimbursement is due."
Kinerney said the notifications are form letters
sent before and after FEMA reviews a case. The first letter does not promise
payment, it merely says that a payment "may" be justified, he said.
letter sent to Montgomery in September, Ramsey Gray, task force examiner for the
Federal Emergency Management Agency, defended the government's decision to deny
the requests for additional money, saying an engineer's survey of the damage
determined that more money wasn't justified. Montgomery said the denial has more
to do with the exodus of adjusters to Florida after the back-to-back
He offers Ginger Stelyn of Seaford as an
Stelyn said her insurance company gave her $110,000 for $225,000
worth of flood damage to her home in York County on the Chesapeake Bay.
Montgomery said Stelyn is one of the cases where adjusters used construction
cost instead of repair cost. Stelyn and her husband have gone $60,000 in debt
trying to get their house livable during the past year. They rented a home until
they could move back into their house at the end of July.
Stelyn said she
didn't find out until August that FEMA was offering to review Hurricane Isabel
claims. When she called FEMA's hot line, Stelyn said, the FEMA representative
told her: "We're going to be shutting down our office and heading down to
Florida. I don't think you'll get any more money."
Kinerney said Stelyn
got wrong information. To this day, FEMA is willing to review claims from
Hurricane Isabel victims, he said.
"That's incorrect information and
whoever gave her that information was incorrect," Kinerney
Montgomery said a Computer Sciences Corp. adjuster recently
reconsidered eight of his cases, but he's not optimistic about the outcome. He
said FEMA has failed to follow through with his clients' insurance companies. He
also says there's so much turnover with FEMA that he has trouble finding someone
to work with on a consistent basis.
"They very often keep you going in
circles and hope that you will give up," Montgomery said.
the new acting administrator for the National Flood Insurance Program, has
repeatedly declined to set a deadline for reviewing Hurricane Isabel claims
because he wants to make sure everyone gets a chance to have the government take
a second look at their case, Kinerney said.
The number of case examiners
for Hurricane Isabel did dwindle from 49 to zero over the course of the year,
but that wasn't because of hurricanes in Florida, he said.
did shrink," he said. "But it shrunk external to the hurricanes hitting. The
claims got wrapped up."
People unsatisfied with their settlement have the
option to sue for more money. But some people won't be satisfied with FEMA until
they get the maximum amount of money that their coverage allows, which is up to
$250,000, Kinerney said.
"In some cases, it's just not within the limits
of the flood insurance program to do that," he said. "Those are kind of the
tough decisions we're making in the last six months."