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Senators seek probe of flood insurance program
By E.B. FURGURSON III, Staff Writer

Maryland's two U.S. senators have asked federal officials for further help with flood insurance problems stemming from last year's Tropical Storm Isabel.

In Oct. 14 letters to Attorney General John Ashcroft and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the senators called for an investigation of insurers' settlement practices and the restoration of an independent audit of claims.

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes asked Mr. Ashcroft to begin looking at charges by a Talbot County man that insurers' handling of claims exploited many Isabel victims and amounted to fraud.

The senators urged Mr. Ridge to reverse a National Flood Insurance Program decision to halt a promised independent review of flood claims.

The program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency within the Department of Homeland Security, has shown reluctance to meet with victims whose settlements are still in question, according to the senators.

Neither senator had received a response as of yesterday.

"I am concerned that FEMA has decided not to move forward with an independent review of outstanding cases," Ms. Mikulski said yesterday. "An independent review is critical to ensure that victims of Hurricane Isabel receive fair and equal treatment."

In the furor that erupted after many victims of the September 2003 storm learned that their flood insurance wouldn't cover the cost of repairing their homes, the Flood Insurance Program was instructed to take a second look at Isabel claims.

Of the 880 Marylanders who asked for that second look, more than half got more money. The review was abandoned because of a class-action lawsuit filed last summer by Isabel victims, according to a letter summarizing a Sept. 14 meeting between the senators and FEMA Federal Insurance Administrator David Maurstad.

Meanwhile, more than 160 Maryland
families, including 38 in Anne Arundel County, are still living in federally issued mobile homes, facing a second winter of frozen pipes and plumbing while their homes await renovations or rebuilding.

Eileen Thaden and some of her neighbors in the Cedarhurst neighborhood in south county are among them.

Last month she asked Ms. Mikulski to find out why her flood insurance case had been closed, still at least $100,000 short of what she says it will take to make her house whole again.

"NFIP sent me a letter saying my case was closed. I had 30 days to appeal it and did so," she said.

About 10 days ago she got another letter repeating that the case was closed, despite assurances by Mr. Maurstad in a Sept. 14 meeting with the senators that he would have personnel available to meet with victims who still have disputed claims.

"We laid out 15 specific points still at issue, and they did not address any of them." Mrs. Thaden said.

In a report prepared for Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith, flood victim advocate Steve Kanstoroom of Talbot County found that claims adjusters were using computer programs that were outdated or based on new construction estimates that are far cheaper than actual remodeling and restoration costs.

He also found that claim reviews were being "conducted by the same adjusters and adjusting firms that originally mishandled the claims."

He said in a phone interview that FEMA is "beating the drum that there are no victims left, just a few malcontents.

"These families are not malcontents. They are desperate. They are trying to stand up and be counted," he said.

Mr. Kanstoroom and Mrs. Thaden met last week with Department of Planning Secretary Audrey Scott to urge that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich also write to federal officials and ask the state to re-contact Isabel victims to see how they're faring.

"The governor has more power in his little finger than all these (victims) put together," Mr. Kanstoroom said. "If he could just write that letter it would help tremendously."

Contacting victims again is necessary, they said, to get a clear picture of how many families have yet to recover.

Besides the 160 families still in trailers, said Mrs. Thaden, "there are others still staying with friends or relatives, some living in damaged homes. There are a lot of displaced families here, now, a year later."



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Published October 21, 2004, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright 2004 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.


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