FEMA to reopen 142,000 claims by Hurricane Sandy homeowners, N.J. senators say

U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, left, and Robert Menendez meet reporters following their closed-door meeting March 11 with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. (Jonathan D. Salant | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

Jonathan D. Salant | NJ Advance Media for NJ.comBy Jonathan D. Salant | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on March 11, 2015 at 7:13 PM, updated March 12, 2015 at 2:15 AM

 WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to reopen claims filed by nearly 142,000 homeowners whose properties were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Agency officials will review the claims filed by any of the 141,800 homeowners with federal flood insurance who ask them to do so, U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker (both D-N.J.) said today following a closed-door meeting at the Capitol with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

“If they feel their claims were unjustly denied or lowballed, they will be able to move forward,” Menendez said. “This is a very significant turnaround in this process.”

FEMA will send letters to affected homeowners, and the senators said they will use social media and other vehicles to get the word out to those residents who have moved since Sandy. If the homeowners are found to have received less in compensation than they should have gotten, they will get more money up to the maximum of $250,000 for their property and $100,000 for dwelling contents.

“This is a good day for people who have been going through months and months and months of frustration,” Booker said.

The announcement does not affect another 2,200 homeowners who have filed suit.FEMA is in settlement talks with homeowners’ lawyers to resolve such claims.

In New Jersey, 74,052 damage claims have been filed and more than 1,100 victims have filed suit, according to U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-6th Dist.), who represents part of the Jersey Shore.

Also attending today’s meeting were Brad Kieserman, the FEMA deputy associate administrator who oversees the flood insurance program; and New York’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer.

It was the latest in a series of actions taken by federal lawmakers in response to complaints about FEMA properly taking care of Hurricane Sandy victims who had federal flood insurance.

At issue are allegations that engineering companies or the insurance companies that hired them produced false or altered reports in order to avoid properly reimbursing homeowners for damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. The Homeland Security inspector general is investigating the reports and Congress has been asked to weigh in as well.

Earlier, FEMA agreed to accept appeals by Sandy victims who had missed the original deadline, set up an office to help Sandy homeowners and other participants in the National Flood Insurance Program, and said it will review all engineering costsbefore an insurance company can be reimbursed, and could reject payment if a firm hired to assess homeowners’ damages has a questionable history.

The agency also has agreed to take steps to make sure that victims of future natural disasters do not have to go through what the Sandy victims have, Menendez said.

“They’ve been running it as an insurance industry would run it,” Menendez said. “An insurance industry is looking to mitigate claims, not to make people whole.”

That will be the subject of an April meeting of a task force consisting of representatives of the senators and FEMA. That task force was given the responsibility of looking at ways to change a system in which insurance companies are penalized for overpaying claims but not for underpaying them.