SPERBER: Reset needed on flood insurance program

SPERBER: Reset needed on flood insurance program – by Krista Sperber, Asbury Park Press

If you are a superstorm Sandy survivor or live by the Shore like I do, you are likely following the flooding in Louisiana. It’s being called the worst disaster since Sandy. Over 30,000 people were rescued, at least 13 died and about 40,000 homes were damaged.
In June, West Virginia experienced a “1,000-year flood event” recording the highest water level since measurements began. Whole towns were under water and 24 lost their lives. Just weeks earlier, Texas declared a state of disaster across 31 counties due to flash floods.
Sandy hit us nearly four years ago, and still thousands are struggling to rebuild. As a survivor of an “unprecedented” storm, I think it’s time we admit that extreme weather and flooding are the new normal.
Only one out of eight families impacted in Louisiana has flood insurance, largely because they weren’t in a flood zone. Families without flood insurance will be eligible for a $33,000 FEMA grant, if they find out about it. How do you put your life back together with $33,000? As we learned, once disaster strikes, working families and low-income communities struggle the most. It’s not just our home destroyed, but our economic stability. Our physical and mental health also wash away with flood waters. How many times to we have to go through this before we learn and are better prepared for future disasters?
When Sandy struck, I felt confident knowing I had the maximum allowable flood insurance. We would be made whole. After seven days, when flood waters finally receded, our real problems began. I found myself fighting uninterested adjusters, fraudulent engineering reports and an apathetic insurance company. I received 10 percent of my claim. How does one rebuild with $29,000?
While my family was desperate for a place to live, my insurance company, Selective, was profiting. Without options I hired an attorney who, in the end, would take one-third of my settlement. All while the insurance company’s attorneys were being paid by FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program.. As a taxpayer and a policy holder, I was paying for attorneys on both sides of the table: those fighting for me and those fighting against me. How is that fair?
Then, there were our struggles with RREM, New Jersey’s rebuilding program. After more than three years, seven moves with my children, husband and dog in tow, it was goodwill by my mayor and community that rebuilt our home. By standing together, fighting for our families, homes and communities, we set things right.
As we prepare for the reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program next year, we have another chance to set things right. The NFIP is supposed to serve policyholders, but it has been hijacked by insurance companies, corporate interests and politicians who refuse to stand up to them. The PBS Frontline special, ‘Business of Disaster’ reported that private insurance companies administering our flood insurance program profited $400 million post-Sandy.
In August, a 50-count indictment was filed against an engineering firm accused of altering reports post-Sandy to minimize flood insurance payments. Fraud was so widespread that in 2015, FEMA was pushed to reopen all 144,000 Sandy claims. The review, said to take 90 days, is still dragging on for many families who continue to struggle financially.
We need a National Flood Insurance Program that works for people, not big insurance companies. The reauthorization of the NFIP is an opportunity to get the program working for our families and communities. If we cannot effectively oversee the private insurance companies that are part of the NFIP, then we should eliminate their participation. It is reprehensible that I, and other taxpayers, paid for lawyers to fight against my family trying to get back home, while these same insurance companies made millions in profits. We are being forced to participate in a seriously flawed program.
It is irresponsible to ignore our increasing risks. Sea-level rise and more extreme weather due to climate change are going to push our recovery system further underwater. FEMA and the NFIP must invest in mitigating the impact of flooding now, not after we lose everything. It’s common sense and cost-effective.
My heart goes out to Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Maryland. There’s no guide for recovering from a disaster, but here’s what I learned: Stand together, identify the problems, get loud and demand action. It’s a long road, I know. Even though I’m finally home, I’m still fighting for a recovery system that works for all of us.
Krista Sperber is a mother of two and small business owner from Belmar. She is a co-founder of the New Jersey Organizing Project.