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Isabel victims remain in limbo
Flood insurance review criticized by advocates; 'Not proceeding as promised'; Agency doesn't question 'integrity' of the process
Originally published June 28, 2004
Elected officials and flood victim advocates from Maryland to North Carolina say the comprehensive review that federal flood insurance officials launched this past spring has not done enough to help people struggling to rebuild homes damaged by Tropical Storm Isabel.
National Flood Insurance Program officials said in a statement that they "have no reason to question the integrity" of the review process, the largest such effort in the agency's history. But those who work with victims complain of slow responses, cursory reviews and inconsistent decisions.
"This is not proceeding as promised," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who has worked with flood victims since the storm.
Warren Judge, chairman of the board of commissioners in Dare County, N.C., which was hit hard by the storm, has a similar view.
"I don't think the re-evaluation of claims is going well at all," Judge said. "One person on the phone says, 'Yes, this should be covered,' and the second person says, 'No.' ... It's just messing with people's lives."
Steve Kanstoroom, a Talbot County advocate who has worked with top NFIP officials in their efforts to address Isabel problems, said he has heard from dozens of victims who are fed up. He said he has also been contacted by some of the adjusters hired by the NFIP's subcontractor, Computer Sciences Corp., who have voiced concerns about the process.
"Policyholders are once again denied legitimate coverage, resulting in catastrophic consequences," Kanstoroom said.
Kanstoroom said he forwarded complaints from victims and information from adjusters working the review to Trey Reid, the acting head of the NFIP. Reid offered to meet this week with Kanstoroom to discuss about a dozen cases and overall concerns, Kanstoroom said.
CSC spokesman Chuck Taylor said that under the terms of its contract, the company must defer questions about the claims review to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, of which the NFIP is a part. The agency did not respond last week to questions about the meeting with Kanstoroom or about the concerns he and others have raised.
NFIP spokesman James McIntyre wrote in a statement Friday that the agency has received 1,751 requests for a review. It has, the spokesman wrote, completed 964 of them and found about a third of the victims deserved more money, about $8,700 on average. Overall, settlements have been increased by more than $2.8 million, he wrote.
Smith, Kanstoroom, other advocates and victims identified several common complaints. Some victims say they never received notification of the review. Others said they were told there was no record of their review requests or that the adjusters could not work on their claims because they had trouble obtaining the files from the private insurance companies that sold and administered the policies.
Some victims say they were denied payment for damages that the NFIP has said should be covered, such as mold or damage to air conditioners. Others say adjusters called and denied them additional payments without seeing the damage or discussing the claims with them.
"I kept calling and calling and calling," said Peter Rice Jr., who runs the Echo Hill Outdoor School in Kent County. "I heard this phrase so many times: 'I've ordered your file, I've ordered your file, I've ordered your file.' It got to the point where it seemed like an excuse for putting me off or for not being able to do anything."
Doug Salvia, a swimming pool contractor from Richmond, Va., said a vacation home he owns on Hatteras Island, N.C., was inundated with about 3 feet of water after Isabel, as was the house next door.
Both were built using a new construction technique that is designed to add stability but is not specifically addressed in the standard flood policy. Salvia said his neighbor's adjuster paid for all of the damage to the first floor, but Salvia's adjuster refused.
Then-NFIP head Anthony S. Lowe sent a memo to insurance companies and adjusters March 10 saying that damages such as Salvia's should be covered. But Salvia said it took more than three months and the help of Hatteras flood insurance activist Beth Midgett to get his insurance company to acknowledge it.
Nine months after Tropical Storm Isabel destroyed their home on the Bird River in Baltimore County, Cathy and Michael Rhea are afraid they'll be in debt until they die.
The Rheas pleaded their case to the head of the National Flood Insurance Program, telling him their settlement is about $60,000 short of what they need to rebuild. They even sent a letter to their adjuster with a picture of their 6-year-old granddaughter, Alana, and her kitten, Sammy, in hopes of generating sympathy.
When the NFIP announced it would review any disputed Isabel claims, Cathy Rhea signed up immediately. An adjuster then determined that she had already been paid $4,000 too much and that she'd get nothing more, Cathy Rhea said.
"I don't think they know what they do to people's lives," she said.
A few weeks ago, Kanstoroom called her. He said an NFIP adjuster sent him her file - including the letter with her granddaughter's picture. He said he'll bring up the Rheas' case when he meets with NFIP officials this week.
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