As Hurricane Harvey continues its record-breaking rainfall in southeast Texas, for New Yorkers the photographs of inundated roadways and flooded homes are a familiar sight.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, which destroyed thousands of homes and vehicles in the New York City area and on Long Island and caused roughly $53 billion worth of damage and loss to the state, the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and several state agencies issued regulations to deal with the hurricane and its aftermath. That effort could provide a glimpse of the sorts of issues that might arise after Hurricane Harvey.
Following Hurricane Sandy, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman increased oversight of nonprofits and charities about their Sandy-related fundraising and relief activities. An October 2014 report issued by Schneiderman’s Charities Bureau found that 80 organizations reported raising more than $658 million for Sandy relief spending $601 million on the intended purpose. By comparison, in July 2013 Schneiderman’s office reported that organizations who responded to a survey reported raising more than $575 million and spending 58 percent of that on Sandy relief efforts.
“As our report found, policyholders are not provided with clarity about the scope of coverage under the National Flood Insurance Program, and often do not receive vital information that determines the outcome of their claim. I continue to call on FEMA to implement the reforms outlined in my report in order to better protect those whose lives are uprooted in the wake of these natural disasters,” Schneiderman said in a statement to the New York Law Journal.
On Wednesday, Schneiderman’s office issued a consumer alert offering tips to people who are donating to Hurricane Harvey victims.
Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Financial Services issued roughly 22,000 temporary adjuster licenses following Hurricane Sandy so that insurance adjusters from other states could come work in New York. The regulatory action temporarily barred insurers from canceling policies for any reason.
Jared Greisman, a partner at White Fleischner & Fino who served as defense-side liaison counsel for the insurance industry during Sandy litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York said that unlike Sandy, where the biggest concern was storm surge, the source of the flooding from Hurricane Harvey was the extraordinary rainfall, which was nearing 52 inches in Cedar Bayou, Texas, as of yesterday evening. The National Weather Service said the amount set a new continental record in the United States.
Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 last week, it’ll be difficult for policyholders to identify the cause of the damage to their homes or businesses, whether it’s storm surge, rainfall or wind, Greisman said. A homeowner policy usually covers unforeseen types of damages like wind damage, Greisman said. Flood damage, however, is typically excluded. When there’s storm surge, he said, the National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, kicks in.
Consumer Federation of America estimated there could be as many as 50,000 claims for wind damage from Hurricane Harvey and three times as many claims for federal flood insurance, which could result in $2 billion in insurance payments for wind damage and more than $5 billion for flood claims.
Flooding from Hurricane Harvey, “could conceivably rival or exceed Hurricane Katrina in total flood damage but not likely in flood insurance payouts since, unfortunately, less than 2 in 10 of homeowners with flood damage have insurance protection, a penetration ratio which varies from community to community in different parts of the eastern Gulf Coast area,” the organization said in a statement. “In New Orleans, the flood insurance market penetration was about 50 percent when Katrina hit.”
Similar to Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Harvey will likely cause an influx of cases in the federal court system. Since the National Flood Insurance Program is a federal program, it’s likely that federal courts in Texas will see an increase in litigation related to flooding, Greisman said. The Eastern District in New York had roughly 1,400 cases related to homeowners arguing that they were either underpaid or their claims denied from Hurricane Sandy.
As the floods continue in Texas, Greisman said insurers should have adjusters ready to inspect properties “as quickly as possible.” Policyholders should document damage quickly and take photos and notes, he advised. Policyholders may also be able to claim more than one occurrence since the hurricane inundating Texas has lasted nearly a week.
Officials from Schneiderman’s office told the New York Law Journal that consumers should request a copy of the report issued by engineers who assess damage and be aware of what is and isn’t covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.
One issue that will be closely watched is whether any engineering firms alter any reports that were prepared to assess structural damage to residential properties, said August Matteis, chairman of Washington-based Weisbrod Matteis & Copley, who has represented victims of Hurricane Sandy and was lead trial counsel in State Farm Fire & Casualty v. United States, ex rel. Rigsby, which argued that the company misclassified wind damage as flood damage in properties damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
The former project manager of HiRise Engineering of Long Island and the company pleaded guilty in January of altering reports of residential property damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. The company was banned from receiving contracts and providing services under the National Flood Insurance Program.Matteis said the influx of insurance claims can result in quick and sometime sloppy work from independent adjusters.
“I’m concerned particularly because of the volume of Hurricane Harvey that the insurance companies are going to put even more pressure on the independent adjusters to blow through these things very quickly,” he said.