NJ homeowners say they have proof of FEMA ‘fraud’ on Sandy claims
Fed up with what they say is fraud, delays and denials with Sandy-related flood insurance claims, the group Stop FEMA Now on Thursday takes its fight to Washington, D.C., backed by more than 200 homeowners from New Jersey and New York.
A bus caravan was expected to depart from seven locations from Marlton to Staten Island, headed for a rally on Capitol Hill.
U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J. 3rd District, is hosting a news conference at noon Thursday at the House Triangle where he'll be joined by homeowners who say they have been underpaid and defrauded by FEMA.
Stop FEMA Now founder George Kasimos, of Toms River, said he has proof, including photos, of what homeowners are now facing, despite the FEMA overhaul after allegations of engineering reports being altered.
"Now they're taking the old adjusters' reports and altering again without even coming out and looking at the homes, so this is a whole new set of fraud that's going on," Kasimos said.
Many of those who have received payouts also are being low-balled, according to Kasimos. He used foundation damage as an example of homes that were considered a total loss and marked for demolition by municipalities. In some cases, FEMA determined the structural damage was a pre-existing condition and paid out as little as $10,000 to $20,000 for a home with a $250,000 flood insurance policy, according to Kasimos.
Kasimos pointed out that over half of the 19,000 homeowners with reopened claims are still waiting.
"This was supposed to an expedited, transparent and fair process. Nothing is transparent and fair. If you have a disagreement with FEMA, they have a third-party mediator, but FEMA is not required to comply with that mediation," said Kasimos.
He also contended the agency is not providing homeowners with their initial claims file needed as evidence in lawsuits being pursued by Sandy victims.
Kasimos stressed the financial hardship Sandy victims continue to face while waiting for their flood insurance claims to be resolved.
"Imagine waiting four years for the money to rebuild your home. Imagine paying rent and mortgage for a home that you're not even living in," Kasimos said.
In rebuttal, FEMA Public Affairs Director Rafael Lemaitre said, "Most of the Sandy survivors who filed flood insurance claims after Hurricane Sandy did get a fair payment and were satisfied with their payouts. Unfortunately, there were many who were underpaid, and there is evidence we have seen of fraudulent activity, that we have referred to the appropriate authorities," which in this case is the Inspector General's office.
Lemaitre repeatedly directed blame for payout discrepancies to private insurance firms, saying that that broad reforms in the National Flood Insurance Program exemplify FEMA's commitment to insurees in good standing, "and we're not gonna stop until every survivor gets every penny they're owed by their private insurance company."
The agency's focus during the past year and a half has been to ensure transparency among private insurors, Lemaitre said, reiterating FEMA's decision to reopen claims involving payouts considered "lowball," and admitting that the review process has been time-consuming. "We want to be sure we get this right," Lemaitre said.
He characterized flood insurance policies as confusing, saying that part of the reform involves clearer terminology that spells out plainly what is covered, and what isn't.
Lemaitre speculated that FEMA is about "halfway through" the reviews of reopened claims, and acknowledged that more than $50,000,000 has been awarded, but had no figures at hand regarding the total number of reopened claims, the number reviewed thus far, or the number completed.
He added that a separate payout system was arranged for claimants who sued the program, and that those payouts are nearly completed.