More than 60 Tropical Storm Isabel victims gathered on flood-ravaged Millers Island yesterday to ask the Maryland Senate to delay confirming the state insurance commissioner until he takes more aggressive action against flood insurance providers.
The Senate's Executive Nominations Committee is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing for the commissioner, Alfred W. Redmer Jr., today.
Most gubernatorial appointees are confirmed without incident, but Redmer's hearing comes less than a week after his predecessor, Steven B. Larsen, released a report saying the insurance commissioner can and should take aggressive action to make sure companies that sell flood insurance settle claims fairly.
"Mr. Redmer, you've got to advocate for us," said Bernice Myer, who lost her Millers Island home in the storm and has been active in organizing victims. "MIA shouldn't be `missing in action,' it should be `Maryland Insurance Administration.'"
Redmer said yesterday that his agency has helped, and will continue to help, Isabel victims navigate the flood insurance claims process and, when necessary, appeal the amount of their awards to the federal government, which administers flood insurance.
However, he said the assistant attorney general assigned to the insurance administration advised him that federal law prevents him from regulating flood insurance agents and adjusters in the same way he can with other types of insurance.
"I wish it was Al Redmer's decision to make, but it's not," Redmer said. "I am told that I simply have no choice."
The governor's office estimated last week that insurance companies, private charities and government programs have distributed more than $340 million to Isabel victims in insurance claims, grants, loans and other aid.
However, state officials estimate that up to 300 people are still living in temporary housing because of the storm.
Many of those who gathered on Millers Island yesterday have yet to return to their homes. They recounted lengthy battles with insurance companies over the amounts of proposed settlements and said they have been overwhelmed by the difficulty of getting what they believe they are entitled to.
Bud and Charlene Kotrla live on the tip of Millers Island, a peninsula at the mouth of Back River in Baltimore County.
They said that although they had $300,000 in flood insurance coverage for their house and its contents, their insurance company has offered them $105,000, about $87,000 less than they say they need to return their home to its pre-storm state.
After months of winter in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer, they said they are desperate for help.
"I went in my closet the other day, and my coat was frozen to the wall, that's how cold it is," Bud Kotrla said.
Redmer said that even if he could regulate flood insurance the way he can homeowner or auto insurance, he wouldn't be able to help with the most common problems Isabel victims have had, such as low settlement offers.
"Even if it was a homeowners claim, we can't require [insurance companies] to pay a certain amount unless we find that their actions are arbitrary and capricious," he said.
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who commissioned the Larsen report, sent copies to members of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, as well as other state officials.
The Smith administration said it was not involved in yesterday's Millers Island protest.
The Larsen report notes a handful of federal court decisions indicating that federal law does not preclude state insurance commissioners from regulating the companies that sell flood policies, though it acknowledged that a lesser number of judges found otherwise.
Sen. Norman K. Stone, a Dundalk Democrat who serves on the executive nominations committee, said he has received the Larsen report and would like to hear Redmer's explanation for his stance.
"I always thought that from the very beginning, as long as you're doing business in the state, you're subject to the regulations of the state, but I'm just a poor country lawyer from Dundalk," Stone said.
Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is chairman of the executive nominations committee, said that people are encouraged to attend the committee hearing and express their concerns.
Just because the committee is holding a hearing on Redmer today doesn't mean it will vote today, Jimeno said.