Never Giving Up: Menendez Keeps Fighting for Sandy Victims

Never Giving Up: Menendez Keeps Fighting for Sandy Victims

WASHINGTON, DC – During a Senate Banking Committee hearing today on the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), U.S. Senator Bob Menendez again pressed the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sandy claims and how he believes FEMA should not force storm survivors to choose between expedited insurance payments and their right to appeal for what they are fully owed. 

After exposing widespread underpayments over two years ago, Sen. Menendez had pushed FEMA to offer a second review to every Sandy victim who believed they were underpaid and to include the option for a Third Party Neutral Review.  And while that process has already resulted in over $157 million of new money going out to Sandy victims, Sen. Menendez wants that money delivered faster and with more accountability. 

Sen. Menendez today questioned Roy Wright, FEMA’s associate administrator who oversees the NFIP and Sandy claims review process.

Partial transcript:

Mr. Wright, as you know, the handling of Sandy flood insurance claims by FEMA and its contractors was an utter disaster, resulting in untold thousands of survivors being lowballed and unable to rebuild.  I exposed this pattern of underpayment in hearings and press conferences more than two years ago and subsequently worked with you and your predecessor to establish a virtually unprecedented opportunity for all policyholders to have their claim reviewed once again.  And while FEMA should’ve gotten it right the first time, I do appreciate FEMA’s acknowledging it made critical mistakes and attempting to remedy them. 

Unfortunately, even the remedy has been fraught with hurdles and delays, with many Sandy victims still waiting two, three or four hundred days beyond the 90 day timeframe FEMA initially promised.   

But I want to focus on the present rather than the past, and get New Jerseyans the funds they need to rebuild as quickly as possible.  On this front, I worked with you to speed the recovery by establishing a pilot program to get Sandy survivors the funds FEMA itself agreed it underpaid originally, without jeopardizing the homeowner’s right to appeal to a third-party neutral.  We came up with a rare thing in government- a common sense solutions to a real problem.  If it's taking so long to conclude the neutral hearings, why not pay the undisputed amount upfront and let people get going?  Let me take a moment to give the Committee a real world example of how this policy change made a tangible difference in people's lives.

Ms. Donna Amon, a woman from Bayville, N.J., took advantage of this pilot program and received her relatively modest interim payment without waiving her right to an appeal.  She had recently suffered an unimaginable tragedy when her husband was killed in a boating accident while at work.  After working with her for several months, she wrote the following after receiving her interim payment:

“I cannot thank you all enough. I finally received about $6,500 — long-owed under my flood policy.  It could not have come at a better time, as I was in a very tight financial bind after losing my husband (Paul Amon), as he was working on a boat that went down near the Tappan Zee Bridge and went in to save the other two crew members.

“First, the Sandy storm and then losing my husband- you feel so alone and I really felt no one cared.  My home was demolished in February and two weeks after my husband’s accident happened. Then the finances…  

“Getting the money upfront was so important for basic things.  I am still pursuing the Neutral, because I feel I was underpaid even after the review found I should be owed $6,500.  But I couldn’t just wait five or six months for the Neutral to conclude. This helps the little people so much.  Please keep this going, don’t stop now, other families need the same help that I have received.

“Sincerely, Donna.”

Previously, Sandy survivors were faced with an almost impossible choice: either accept the offer from FEMA and waive your right to appeal it, or wait potentially for months on end without any payments until the neutral issues a determination and FEMA accepts it.  Many survivors who knew the FEMA offer was still less than they deserved were all but forced to accept the underpayment because they needed the funds immediately to keep their heads above water.