The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency says he wants to fix what went wrong with the process of paying flood insurance claims following Superstorm Sandy.
Craig Fugate told the first meeting of a congressional task force in Washington on Tuesday that the flood program has to be revamped so equal importance is given to paying the full amount of legitimate claims.
"We want to fix this," Fugate said. "If we owe money, we pay. Too often in government we are focused on not making an overpayment, putting more emphasis on not overpaying a claim. I gotta get it right. How do we get to something that's more successful and works better the first time?"
New Jersey's U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat, said the task force will focus on FEMA's agreement to reopen all underpaid flood insurance claims for Superstorm Sandy victims. He said some of the underpayments were caused by "lowballing and manipulation of engineering and adjustment reports."
"Getting it right means no overpayments, but it also means no underpayments," Menendez said. "We have to get it right."
The task force consists of the four senators from New Jersey and New York, Fugate, Sandy victims and their advocates in both states. It will recommend ways to improve the performance of the flood insurance program.
One of the members is George Kasimos, of Toms River, New Jersey, who formed the grass roots group Stop FEMA Now when FEMA announced that flood insurance rates would soar based on new flood maps it issued two months after the October 2012 storm.
"This is all about fairness and getting people back in their homes," he said. "Nobody wants to go to another FEMA meeting. They can't go through another process. They can't go through their garbage bag and get another receipt. We're losing our faith in government. We are the middle class. We just want what we paid for."
Superstorm Sandy was spawned when Hurricane Sandy merged with two other weather systems. It killed people in several states, but New Jersey and New York were hit the hardest. It's New Jersey's worst natural disaster.
Denise Neibel, the assistant general manager of the Breezy Point Cooperative, in one of New York's hardest-hit areas, said many Sandy victims are exhausted and frustrated by fighting with government bureaucracy, having spent thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to try to rebuild.
And Sue Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group in New Jersey, asked FEMA to allow nonprofit groups like hers to be present at policyholders' interactions with FEMA to advocate for them.
The agency said it plans to meet in the coming weeks with the staffs of the senators on the task force as it works to form recommendations.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
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