Va. Officials Join Critics of Flood Program

December 6, 2004

Two Virginia members of Congress are asking U.S. officials to take a closer look at possible mishandling of flood claims by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-1st, and Sen. George Allen, also a Republican, wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft last week to complain about FEMA’s actions following Hurricane Isabel, which struck Virginia on Sept. 18, 2003.

Davis also sent a strongly worded letter to Tom Ridge, secretary of homeland security, whose department oversees FEMA. In that letter, Davis said she was concerned that apparent conflicts of interest within FEMA and its National Flood Insurance Program may have hurt policyholders, including those who contested insurance settlements.

“Rather than conducting an independent review of claims as directed by the Senate, I understand FEMA’s contractor assembled a team of reviewers comprised largely of adjusters and adjusting firms who originally handled the claims,” she wrote in the letter.

Davis told the Daily Press for a story Friday that she expects to hear from Ashcroft’s and Ridge’s departments by the end of January. Ashcroft and Ridge are leaving their cabinet posts, but she said the departments should have adequate time to start investigations.

“If I don’t hear something by the end of January, I’ll probably go at them and ask them why not,” she told the newspaper.

After receiving complaints about unfair settlements earlier this year, FEMA reviewed 2,267 cases from Hurricane Isabel victims. In about half of those cases, people received additional money that totaled $8.6 million.

James McIntire, FEMA spokesman, confirmed that the government’s review team included some of the original adjusters who had handled the first round of Isabel claims. But each adjuster was strictly prohibited from handling the same cases twice, he said.

The pool of available adjusters was too small to allow FEMA to pick completely different people for the review team, McIntire said.

Davis said she was concerned about information given to her by Maryland-based activist Steve Kanstoroom and Dan Montgomery, an independent insurance adjuster. They showed her evidence that hurricane victims got much larger settlements from the flood insurance program after contesting what seemed to be low-ball offers.

“We need to pay people what they are due,” Davis said. “You can’t give to one person, and take advantage of someone who doesn’t know what to do.”

Although homeowners buy flood insurance from private insurance agencies, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program underwrites the policies.

Only about 6 percent of victims from Hurricane Isabel who filed flood insurance claims asked FEMA to review them again.

Many homeowners apparently did not ask for reviews of their claims because they mistakenly thought they had seen blue-jacketed FEMA officials at their homes adjusting their claims, and reasoned that “trusted FEMA officials” already had told them their losses were not covered, Davis said. Instead, they had seen adjusters who worked for a government contractor, Computer Sciences Corp., and wore FEMA jackets.

“I’ve learned that these CSC adjusters wrongly told my shocked, bewildered and unsuspecting constituents they were not entitled to the benefits they were seeking,” Davis wrote.

Many flood victims who asked for reviews received calls from the “staff of conflicted adjusters,” who said no further compensation was due, Davis wrote in her letter to Ridge.

Allen’s letter cites nearly 180 households in Virginia that remain in FEMA trailers. McIntire said the exact number of Virginia households in FEMA trailers is 124. Of those households, only nine are in trailers because of flood issues, he said.

In September, U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland asked the inspector general and Ashcroft to look into similar matters involving residents of their state.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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