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Volume Of Claims Delays Sandy Settlements

By James Osborne, The Philadelphia Inquirer
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Dec. 30--Hopes of getting the hardest-hit stretches of the Jersey Shore rebuilt by next summer are fading, as delays in insurance settlements mount and uncertainty hangs over federal aid.

More than 70,000 property owners have filed claims with the National Flood Insurance Program, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The agency would not say how many of those claims had been settled, but in communities up and down the Shore, property owners and local officials reported that only a small percentage of homeowners had seen flood insurance settlements two months after Sandy made landfall.

In Long Beach Township, where the storm flooded more than 6,000 homes, Mayor Joseph Mancini estimated no more than 10 percent of claimants had received checks. Brick Township Mayor Steve Acropolis said he knew of only "a small number" of people who had settled.

"I don't think the insurance industry put enough people here in the beginning," Acropolis said. "There are people who have started rebuilding, but for the most part, everyone's still waiting for those checks."

The delay in flood insurance settlements, which experts say exceeds the standard after major storms, adds to a dizzying atmosphere at the Shore. Home and business owners contemplate rebuilding as they navigate the maze of insurance company negotiations, questions over FEMA aid, and pending changes to federal floodplain maps that will require many to elevate their houses.

At New Jersey Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy group, staffers are still taking 50 phone calls a week and floods of e-mails from confused, mostly lower-income homeowners seeking advice.

For more affluent flood victims, insurance adjusters who negotiate with the insurance companies are being hired at a rate never before seen, said Chris McDowell, president of the National Association of Independent Insurance Adjusters.

In the small summer haven of Ortley Beach, still closed to residents, some homeowners filed claims six weeks ago but have received no estimate of their settlements, a necessity in deciding whether to rebuild homes that are expected to be vastly more expensive since FEMA released its new advisory floodplain maps two weeks ago, said Kathy Barisciano, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayer Association.

"By this point, I expected to have some information about what they're going to pay," she said. "People need to get their ducks in a row."

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As of Friday, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had received no applications for rebuilding from Sandy-related damage -- a requirement for coastal properties when damage exceeds 50 percent of the structure's value.

The rebuilding underway is largely limited to relatively minor repairs such as replacing sodden drywall and repairing damaged roofing, according to the New Jersey Builders Association.

Insurance settlements are usually agreed upon within two to three weeks of the claim after s a storm, McDowell said.

But the devastation Sandy wrought is of such a scale the system of adjusters and insurance companies and the federal government has become overwhelmed, said Adam Scales, a law professor at Rutgers-Camden who studies flood insurance.

"Most of the time you don't have a couple hundred thousand claims coming over the weekend. The system's not designed to deal with that," he said.

On top of that, as of Dec. 11, the National Flood Insurance Program had only $1 billion in cash and borrowing capacity of $2.9 billion, enough to provide the maximum $250,000 payout to 15,600 residential policy holders. In New Jersey alone, FEMA has estimated the number of properties Sandy damaged at 72,000 -- more than 5,500 of which have been designated as having suffered significant structural damage or been destroyed.

President Obama asked Congress to extend FEMA's borrowing capacity as part of his $60.4 billion aid package, which passed the Senate on Friday, but the bill remains caught up in the debate over the fiscal cliff, automatic tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1.

FEMA would not make an flood insurance program official available for an interview.

A representative for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group representing insurance companies that administer the federal flood insurance program, said claims for Sandy were flowing smoothly but could not provide settlement statistics.

Since Sandy struck Oct. 29, Gov. Christie has been vocal about his willingness to step in if insurance settlements were not forthcoming.

At a town-hall meeting Dec. 20 in Belmar, his first since Sandy, Christie said, "We're going to call those insurance companies and tell them it's time to pay up."

The state Department of Banking and Insurance, which has been tasked with keeping watch over the claims process, does not have jurisdiction over flood insurance, a spokesman said.

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"Ultimately, you'll end up with [the National Flood Insurance Program], but if there's any way we can help, we will," spokesman Ed Rogan said.

Among local officials determined to get their communities rebuilt in time for the traditional start of the summer season on Memorial Day, frustration is growing as the settlement process stretches out.

On Long Beach Island, Mancini said he still felt really good the island would be ready for tourists by next season but acknowledged the delays had hurt the rebuilding process.

"It shocks me that you have people who have been displaced for two months now, and they still don't know what they're going to receive," he said. "I know everyone's jammed up and it's the holidays, but once they do the evaluation, it's punching some numbers into a computer."

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Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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(c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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