NEW YORK — The destructive floodwaters of Superstorm Sandy receded quickly, but some storm victims are still neck-deep in a battle over insurance payouts. And many victims of this year's storms in Texas, Florida and elsewhere should brace themselves for a similar fight, lawyers involved in Sandy insurance battles say.
As Sandy's fifth anniversary approaches Oct. 29, more than 1,000 families in New York and New Jersey are still fighting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over their flood insurance claims, according to government statistics.
The FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program paid out $8.2 billion to about 144,000 policyholders after Sandy, a critical safety net that saved many homeowners from financial ruin.
But many storm victims also complained that they were shortchanged by the private insurance companies hired to administer the program and left with too little money to repair the damage.
Under pressure from Congress, FEMA reopened the Sandy claims process in 2015 and since then has paid out an additional $396 million, but some property owners continue to argue in that they are owed more.
In the barrier island city of Long Beach, New York, Jamilyn Spellman is among those still fighting, even though her Sandy-damaged home has long since been demolished, the land beneath it sold, and its original owner — her mother — has died of cancer.
"She just wanted to die at home," said Spellman. But "she died displaced ... literally, in the hospice, talking about FEMA."
After nearly every major storm, lawyers for Sandy victims said, disputes arise over fair payouts that can be maddeningly difficult to resolve.
"It has been a struggle every step of the way," said August Matteis, a Washington, D.C., lawyer whose firm is representing about 1,200 policyholders going through the FEMA review. "FEMA is still fighting us tooth and nail for every penny."
Amy Bach, executive director of the advocacy group United Policyholders, said the lessons of Sandy and other past storms show that victims of this year's hurricanes need to take an aggressive approach to their claims, too.
Among other things, she said, victims should thoroughly photograph their home's condition, inside and out, before making even temporary repairs or cleaning out debris.
"You need to be proactive in documenting and valuing your losses if you want to get a fair, full and timely settlement," she said.
The National Flood Insurance Program was created to protect homeowners unable to buy insurance in the private sector because they live in high-risk flood zones.
While many homeowners with Sandy policies settled claims quickly, more than 2,000 sued over what they said was sloppy work by some of the insurance adjusters and structural engineers who were rushed into the disaster zone to evaluate the damage.
After some homeowners and their lawyers uncovered evidence that at least two engineering companies hired by insurers had a practice of rewriting reports turned in by field inspectors, FEMA took the unprecedented step of allowing all Sandy victims to have their claim re-examined. About 19,500 policyholders asked for a review.
According to the last FEMA update, released Sept. 8, most of those reviews had been completed. But about 1,100 policyholders were still in an appeals process, with a neutral reviewer going over their claim.
FEMA officials have said their priority is getting claims paid fairly as quickly as possible. It has set a target of Oct. 25 for completing arguments in the Sandy claim review process.
The agency has also undertaken a series of reforms since Sandy. Among other things, it has already decided to give victims of Hurricane Harvey a year to document their losses. Sandy victims were initially told they had just 60 days, though deadlines for many were later extended.
The Spellmans' insurance fight is similar to a lot of the other insurance disputes that have dragged out.
Sandy's storm surge inundated the property with 3 ½ feet of water, opened a small sinkhole under part of the house and put a hole in the foundation.
An engineer hired by the insurance company said the building could be saved and FEMA awarded the family about $104,000 for repairs. Contractors hired by the family said the damage was bad enough that it would cost at least $300,000 — more than the family's $250,000 policy.
The house was eventually razed in hopes the family could put up a modest modular home. And finally, the lot was sold last December because the family could no longer afford the mortgage and taxes.
Jamilyn Spellman says she is holding out hope that when the fight with FEMA ends, she'll end up with what her mother was "rightfully entitled to and fought for."
"It would help so much ... but the damage is already done," she says. "My mother's gone. The house is gone. For me, I feel like I've already lost what's important."