Last week residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy came out to a recovery information meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Administration and private state insurance industry representatives, but in the end there were more questions than answers.
The session, held at Union County College’s Cranford campus was spearheaded by Republican Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and the Union County Freeholders. The session was also supported by a panel of experts as well as other elected officials who were brought aboard to address the complex issue of wading through the misinformation and red tape often associated with a disaster recovery process.
But if residents from hard hit towns such as Linden, Rahway, Westfield, Elizabeth and Union expected to gain clarity about any financial help they had coming to them from the federal government or other sources, it immediately became clear that all answers were highly dependent on multiple factors, including a resident’s circumstances, damage, insurance coverage and ability to understand the complex process involved with filing claims.
After Freeholder Chairman Al Mirabella gave a short introductory statement about Union County being on the road to recovery, Bramnick dove right into the heart of why everyone was present.
One of the topics he focused on was the often frustrating process of registering with FEMA and the contradictory responses homeowners were receiving from this governmental agency handling emergency disaster appropriations. And although FEMA representatives tried to explain how the disaster aid process worked, answers often were left open ended or contradictory.
Bramnick then inquired if FEMA representatives provided financial or emergency food help to homeowners who lost power during and after the hurricane and was told by FEMA representative David Curbelo that his agency does not provide that type of emergency relief.
However, FEMA representative Robert Angelo said it was critical that impacted homeowners first register with FEMA because that was the first step in receiving financial help.
When asked why people were being denied help after applying to FEMA, Angelo explained how the process worked.
“Denial is the first step in the process,” he said, which raised the ire of not only the audience but also several panel members. Angelo pushed forward, though, urging homeowners not to give up, suggesting they could have been turned down because they did not provide FEMA with enough information.
Sherry Bullock, of Plainfield, brought up the fact that all she heard from the media was for her go to a FEMA office and register, but when she did she was told the satellite office did not handle registrations.
“Not everyone can get to a FEMA office and when we do, we are told to call,” she said.
The resident, who had damage from a large number of trees that fell on her property, said she was frustrated by the FEMA process and the fact that her tenants could not get to the Disaster Recovery Center in Springfield.
The Disaster Recovery Center, located at the Chissom Center on South Springfield Avenue, is where residents can register with FEMA and obtain other help FEMA forms and loan applications.
Although this clarified things, Bullock thought FEMA could do a better job of covering a county that had catastrophic damage in excess of a billion dollars.
“You would think they would have offices in towns like Plainfield and Linden where there was so much damage,” she said. One FEMA representative in the audience explained that the number of offices in a county had to be approved by the federal government, but he was fairly certain two additional Disaster Recovery Offices were expected to open in the next few weeks.
Bramnick again asked if FEMA would go to Plainfield to “provide food and cash” to financially strapped victims of the storm, but the representative said FEMA did not provide that kind of disaster relief. The audience was not pleased at hearing this, several yelling out “what does FEMA provide and where has the $127 million gone that you gave out already.”
Angelo said homeowners are often turned down by FEMA because they have flood or homeowners insurance, or both. Audience members groaned at this, while several others simply got up and left.
Despite this, Angelo forged ahead, mentioning other possible road blocks that could be encountered along the path to obtaining disaster aid from FEMA.
“For example, if you have homeowners insurance, it probably doesn’t cover flood, which means if you don’t have separate flood insurance, then your homeowners might cover something,” he added, but FEMA representative David Curbelo disagreed.
“You could have a policy that doesn’t cover flood, but it might cover wind and wind drives water,” Curbelo pointed out, explaining that if six or seven trees came down on a homeowner’s property, the homeowner where the tree originally stood does not have to pay for the removal.
This, though, was later contradicted by Mike Miller, a private insurance adjuster on the panel, who attempted to explain that circumstances actually had a lot to do with whose homeowners policy was responsible for payment.
Audience members, however, did not agree. Several yelled out they had first hand knowledge and if a neighbor’s tree fell on their next door neighbor’s property, the owner of the tree was not responsible for the removal or subsequent damage that resulted from the incident. That responsibility lay entirely with the homeowner whose property the tree landed on.
“I know that because it happened to me,” one resident called out.
Angelo suggested residents who could not afford to pay for the removal of large downed trees should call the FEMA line 211 to obtain a list of volunteers who signed up to help with tree removal.
One FEMA representative explained how secondary homeowners, or those with vacation homes at the shore, were not eligible for FEMA aid, but could apply for a FEMA low interest loan. Curbelo, though, speaking for FEMA, stepped to the microphone to disagree.
“If someone owns a vacation home at the shore, and it is not their primary residence, they are not eligible for a FEMA low interest loan,” he said. A low rumble of discontent erupted from the audience at this point, with many questioning why there were so many contradictions coming from FEMA representatives.
At this point panelist Assemblyman Jerry Green of Plainfield cut in to express his opinion of what had transpired so far.
“I’m sitting here for ten minutes and I’m frustrated. It seems there is a lack of communication among FEMA representatives as to what homeowners are getting,” he said, adding that he was not “trying to be cruel to FEMA but cruel to the system.”
“People should not come to a meeting and not get the answers they need,” Green said.
Cranford resident Frank Krause inquired whether Gov. Chris Christie’s declaration just days after the storm that all insurance deductibles would be waived still held. Panelist Jim McGarry of the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance responded explaining what the governor “actually meant.”
“There was a good deal of confusion that a deductible can be waived and they can’t,” he said, adding a governor does not have that kind of power over privately held companies.
A Westfield resident approached the microphone to explain that a very large tree fell on his home and it was condemned as a result.
“My question is what if you don’t agree with your insurance adjuster,” the resident inquired.
Mike Miller, a panelist from M. Miller & Son Public Insurance Adjusters, explained that homeowners with a major loss have to protect themselves by taking pictures and notes about the loss they have incurred.
“You have to watch out for yourselves,” he added, mentioning that homeowners always have the option of getting a licensed public claims adjuster.
Miller also explained about a public claims adjuster.
“They aid homeowners who have a dispute with their insurance carrier by looking at all the damage, compiling a report and then presenting it to your insurance company,” he said.
As for the cost of a public claims adjuster, that, he explained, is highly dependent on who a homeowner selects. Miller said New Jersey currently has no law against public adjusters charging the percentage they want.
One resident agreed, saying they had been getting estimates from public adjusters who were charging as high as 25 percent of the amount of money received from a homeowners’s insurance settlement.
Miller pointed out that anything over 10 percent of the overall job was excessive.
Green did comment as the session wound down, remarking that “90 percent of the audience thinks both FEMA and the homeowners insurance industry are playing games.”
Wrapping up Bramnick told the audience that “this was a disaster” and homeowners just want answers.
“The first few days we were in survival mood and now we are in recovery,” the assemblyman said.
When all was said and done, many residents who had been without power or heat for more than a week, left the meeting just as distraught as when they arrived.