What remains remarkable, and tragic, about the ways in which Hurricane Sandy victims have been mistreated is the sheer scope of the offenses. Seemingly every government agency and program that has had its hands in the recovery has cheated and blundered its way through the process, extending the suffering for four years — and counting.
That was the overriding message from victims who poured out some of their heartache during an Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee hearing on the Sandy recovery Thursday. And their nightmares are just a small sampling. Talk to those who have been forced to rebuild and the horror stories just keep coming.
Homeowners have been bewildered, angered and pushed to the brink of capitulation by a bureaucratic maze with obstacles around every turn. The indignities keep multiplying. Many owners were unfairly underpaid on their claims, the result in some cases of intentional doctoring of damage assessments and an appeals process that was itself manipulated to suppress payments. Others endured unreasonably long delays in receiving any assistance, putting greater and greater pressure on their own finances; thousands of homes under the state’s RREM (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation) program have yet to be rebuilt.
Most troubling to many of the residents who spoke before the Assembly committee is the state’s effort to reclaim supposed aid overpayments that have long been spent, and that recipients can’t possibly be expected to return. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent out similar recoupment letters trying to get money back. These are not just cases of suspected fraud. Many of the overpayments were simple mistakes. So now victims have to suffer again to make up for someone else’s error?
All of this underscores the critical need for legislation that would protect homeowners from foreclosures for an extended period. A bill that would have accomplished that was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in the last legislative session, and lawmakers clearly aren’t working aggressively enough to push a fresh version of a bill through to the governor’s desk. Christie objected to oversight elements, preferring that judges be given control of individual homeowner cases.
Regardless of the method, it is necessary legislation that Sandy victims deserve. Government officials owe it to them after all they’ve put them through after the storm.
Remember how we got here. The recovery effort after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was plagued by problems that generated extensive criticism of excessive spending. FEMA, as a result, was motivated from the start of the Sandy recovery to keep costs down. In theory that meant greater efficiency and awards that more appropriately reflected actual damage, but in practice that meant a variety of schemes to cheat victims.
Damage reports developed on site were changed and underplayed by others who never visited the scene. Public pressure forced many of the underpaid claims to be reconsidered under appeal, but the appeal procedure itself was structured to discourage challenges by withholding entire payments while under review, even if only a portion of the award was under appeal. Public pressure eventually forced officials to reopen many cases that had already been closed, but whistleblowers said even that process was tainted by orders from above to those examining the appeals to simply plug the claims into a formula designed to cheat victims. Under public pressure FEMA eventually adopted several related reforms.
Meanwhile, we learned last week that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development wants the state to justify $43 million in apparently questionable spending, or pay the money back. That stems from an audit of the company formerly in charge of distributing aid under three of the state’s disaster programs. But if some of that money has to be returned, where will it come from? Does the state plan to hit up victims for more repayments?
Nearly everyone, it seems, has failed Sandy victims. Their stories should not have to end with foreclosures largely forced upon them by government incompetence. Lawmakers need to provide some protection while homeowners continue to recover not just from the storm, but from the recovery process itself.