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July 29--TOMS RIVER -- When the storm surge from superstorm Sandy shoved the Kettle Creek into Doug Quinn's home, he waded through waist-deep water to escape in the middle of the night. Ask him today and he'll tell you that was the easy part.
"Nobody ever thought our insurance company and our government would cheat us, and I'm sorry but that's the way we feel," he said during a news conference arranged by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and attended by other families with insurance and rebuilding woes, in the shell of Quinn's home. "I never thought in a million years that after two years we'd still be out of our home and -- take a look around -- we're not even close."
Quinn has been going back and forth with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (for his National Flood Insurance Program policy payout) and the state (for disaster aid) for a home that he and his 17-year-old daughter Megan have been displaced from longer than they lived in it.
Quinn, a former Marine, and Megan have been living in a rental in Toms River since the storm. To add insult to injury, Quinn has been informed that because he's been out of his house for so long -- clamoring for the money needed to rebuild it -- that his Pine Crest Drive home is no longer considered his primary residence for flood-insurance purposes. Because of that, his premium shot up by 25 percent, or about $500 a year.
Quinn plans on contesting the change, but he sounds exhausted just talking about it.
"Here's the thing. You can do this, that, this, that -- everyone's overwhelmed," he said. "How do I make a living? How do I raise my child? How do I do all this stuff while I spend huge chunks of time filling out paperwork ... on the phone arguing with people, getting bounced around, getting disconnected, waiting for phone calls not returned, emails not returned, we need this, we need that. So yeah, that fight goes on the pile -- with the other 100 fights I'm fighting."
Menendez, who pledged to inquire about the payout process during a Wednesday Senate hearing with the head of FEMA, said the claims process is structured in a way that is detrimental to policyholders.
"FEMA has set up the process to prevent overpayments, which has resulted in countless homeowners being low-balled," said Menendez, who also has been championing flood insurance premium relief recently.
In Quinn's case, he was covered up to $250,000 for flood damage to his home. He has been approved for $92,800 by his insurer, which administers the program on FEMA's behalf, for what Quinn and his attorney -- he is considering suing for underpayment -- believe was about $254,000 worth of damage.
"It works out to about 35 cents on the dollar," he said.
Selective Insurance Group, Quinn's insurer, did not immediately respond to messages. FEMA, which will not comment on individual policies, notes that adjusters who handle claims for insurers like Selective are paid only when cases are closed and the bigger the claim, the more they are paid. A FEMA spokesman said that $8 billion has been paid out and that 99.6 percent of Sandy-related claims have been closed.
But Quinn argues that many people were not as prepared as he was to dispute their underpayment and took what he called "shut up and go away money" because they didn't know their options.
"I'm a financial adviser," he said. "I'm used to paperwork and bureaucracy and dealing with insurance companies. If I'm frustrated and at my wit's end, what about the average person?"
Quinn opened up his home to reporters and another dozen or so homeowners who were invited by Menendez's staff after they made flood insurance complaints to the senator's office. Menendez spoke behind a podium, which was just in front of a gaping hole in the floor, revealing the home's foundation. All the interior walls had been knocked out.
During a 10-minute question and answer session with New Jersey's senior U.S. senator, homeowners leaned up against the wall frames to ask why FEMA was taking so long to respond to their appeal, or what was happening with SBA loans, or how could they be excluded from one grant program after another. Many were flummoxed by state-run programs, which Menendez has no direct influence over.
George Kasimos founded the grassroots Stop FEMA Now in January 2013 after he ran into wall after wall trying to get answers about how he should go about rebuilding his Sandy-destroyed home. He was outside the event on Monday mingling and handing out yard signs.
He encouraged people in similar situations to do what Quinn is considering -- get a lawyer and file a lawsuit.
"Every insurance company in New Jersey has agreed to go to mediation if there's an issue, except for the NFIP," he said.
Russ Zimmer: 732-557-5748, [email protected]
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