Last fall, Long Island attorney Tracey Discepolo opened a solo practice focused on the legal needs of special-needs children after a 12-year stint as multinational counsel for various insurance companies. Then Hurricane Sandy hit.
With floodwaters filling the basement and reaching about 18 inches of the first floor in her Massapequa home, Discepolo said she went into "crisis mode"—documenting her damaged property in an Excel spreadsheet for future insurance adjustors.
On March 1, Discepolo, 40, and her family—husband, two kids, a cat and a chocolate Labrador—finally will return to their home. Meanwhile, she will be on hand today at a clinic to help other victims of the Oct. 29 storm.
At left, Tracy Discepolo stands amid the reconstruction of her Massapequa home. Below, she counsels a Sandy victim at a clinic hosted by the Nassau County Bar Association.
Discepolo is one of several lawyers in storm-torn parts of Long Island who are applying their expertise to assist their neighbors pro bono, despite ongoing Sandy-related disruptions to their own lives.
"I try to let them know they’re not alone. I’m in the same boat," Discepolo said.
She has volunteered at eight clinics sponsored by the Nassau County Bar Association and the New York Legal Assistance Group, assisting about eight clients per event with 30-minute free consultations. And when one of the contractors tearing out her ruined walls and floors mentioned a dispute with a business partner, she drafted an agreement for him.
"Some people just want someone to listen to their stories," Discepolo said. "Everybody’s tired and frustrated, and many people are still waiting to hear from their insurers. It’s a very slow process."
Meeting with insurance adjustors and contractors is "a full-time job," Discepolo said. So far she’s gotten $15,000 from her flood insurer. Her family’s cleanup and repair costs have totaled $80,000, mostly out-of-pocket. The job still isn’t done either. When her family moves back, it will only have use of the upstairs bedrooms and bathroom. Still, she said, it’s a step up from the 500-square-foot temporary apartment they’ve rented since the storm.
Nassau and Suffolk counties were hit particularly hard by Sandy. The two counties have taken in about 40 percent of the state’s $906 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency grants toward rental assistance, home repairs and other costs not covered by private insurers, according to the agency. In Nassau County, 37,000 homeowners have been approved for $293 million in federal aid, while 9,300 Suffolk County residents have received $69 million.
The Nassau County Bar has helped more than 650 people in 14 Sandy-specific legal clinics with a group of about 80 volunteer lawyers, some of whom face storm-related legal hurdles of their own.
"It’s amazing to see our volunteers who’ve lost their homes are still able to come out here and advise people on issues that they themselves are just starting to work through," said Marian Rice, president of the Nassau County Bar.
‘Lack of Understanding’
Criminal defense lawyer Karl Seman, who has offices in Garden City and Melville, has volunteered at three Nassau County bar clinics.
He, his wife and two young children were out of their Bellmore home, which is in an evacuation zone, for about a week after Sandy. Four feet of water caused about $100,000 in damage to their basement and first floor, and the loss of big-ticket items such as the hot water heater, washing machine and dryer.
Seman said he has not heard from his insurer but expects to receive his claim check "any day now." In the volunteer clinics, he said he has seen a "general lack of understanding" among homeowners on what is covered by their flood and homeowners’ insurance policies, he said.
"The next battle is going to be with the mortgage holders, because that $100,000 repair check doesn’t go to you, it goes to you and your bank," Seman said.
In their final settlement offers to homeowners, insurers often issue checks jointly to homeowners and their bank or mortgage lender, requiring the bank’s approval before homeowners can access the funds.
The Nassau County bar said it has seen an uptick in Sandy-related legal questions at its monthly foreclosure clinics, which it offered before the storm. In some cases, banks are withholding insurance settlements from homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgages until they can make the back payments.
An investigation released Feb. 12 by the state’s Department of Financial Services showed that $208 million in Sandy funds have not been disbursed by banks to 6,611 borrowers. Governor Andrew Cuomo has called on the banks to speed the funds’ release and use "maximum discretion" to get money into homeowners’ hands.
In Discepolo’s case, her bank said it would give her 20 percent of the settlement offer from her home insurer up front, and another third once the bank sends an inspector to her home to obtain proof that repairs are being made. That proof-of-repairs requirement is in accordance with rules of federal mortgage agencies, but keeps money from homeowners who don’t have cash on hand.
"Contractors aren’t going to wait to get paid. That’s going to be the real hardship for people," Seman said.
Rosemarie Barnett, an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is another attorney who can sympathize with struggling homeowners. Her Baldwin home on Long Island’s South Shore suffered more than $100,000 in structural damage and $55,000 in personal property damage.
She spent more than three weeks in motels after the storm until her heat and power came back. Barnett has paid about $30,000 out-of-pocket for storm cleanup and deposits to contractors for repair work, plus several thousand more in associated costs: a higher heating bill since much of her home’s insulation has been torn out, and hundreds of dollars in storage fees for her furniture.
"It’s scary shelling out that much" before seeing her insurer’s final settlement offer, she said.
Barnett has volunteered with NYLAG’s mobile legal help center doing intake and answering general legal questions when it was stationed in Lindenhurst. Her firm has allowed her to work from home most days as she meets with insurance adjustors and contractors.
Like other lawyers who have helped Sandy victims, Barnett said her sense of professional responsibility compelled her to volunteer.
"I’m an attorney and I myself have good insurance," Barnett said. "I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who don’t have the same resources."
For Discepolo, dealing with the storm’s aftermath has forced her to rethink her decision to leave the corporate world last year in search of legal work that would allow her to give back to her community. Because of the storm’s toll on her finances, the practice she planned to build around special-needs children has been tabled.
She is considering an in-house counsel position with an insurance company and had to turn down another public service job she was recently offered.
"If my financial situation was different I would definitely have done the work," Discepolo said. "Since the storm happened and I started community outreach, it felt good to help someone every day. It’s been rewarding. But right now it’s not enough to satisfy my monthly bills."
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