Isabel advocates push contractor to resolve flood claim problems

Activists tell official about review process' conflicts

July 31, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Advocates for Tropical Storm Isabel victims pressed a contractor for the federal flood insurance program yesterday to resolve potential conflicts of interest in a review of claims from the storm.

Complaining of inconsistent settlement offers, advocates also questioned the training of flood insurance agents and adjusters in a meeting with Harvey Bernstein, vice president and deputy general counsel for Computer Sciences Corp., which handles many day-to-day operations of the National Flood Insurance Program.

The company has become the object of scrutiny in recent weeks. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. have asked federal investigators to probe the company's role in hundreds of disputed Isabel claims.

Participants in the five-hour meeting said Bernstein appeared surprised by some information they provided. They said he agreed to meet again with them and representatives from the Maryland and North Carolina attorney general's offices.

"He was genuinely interested and appropriately concerned, and he seemed to have a keen interest in involving [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] in the process," said Steve Kanstoroom, a flood victim advocate from Talbot County.

Bernstein declined to comment about the meeting.

The federal insurance program agreed in March to re-evaluate any of the 24,000 claims from the storm in which victims were unsatisfied. But elected officials and victims in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina have complained the review has done little to close the gap between the settlement offers and the actual cost to repair their homes, often a difference of tens of thousands of dollars.

Ten months after the storm, victims are still living in FEMA-provided trailers outside their ruined homes.

Kanstoroom and Beth Midgett, a victim advocate from Hatteras, N.C., told Bernstein they believe that adjusters who worked on Isabel claims after the September storm are working on the comprehensive settlement re-evaluation and exerting influence over cases they initially handled.

Furthermore, they said they have found evidence that agents who sell flood policies are being told by CSC trainers that flood insurance will pay for damages that CSC general adjusters have declined to cover.

"My goal was them seeing firsthand the training disparities and understanding the conflict, so they could act immediately to ... make sure the reviewers have the same understanding that agents do," Kanstoroom said.

Kanstoroom said he provided Bernstein with internal company documents that adjusters working on the review gave him. Kanstoroom has also provided the documents to The Sun.

State Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Democrat; Kathleen A. Birrane, an assistant attorney general who works in the Maryland Insurance Administration; and a representative of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a North Carolina Republican, also attended the meeting.

"I think it's egregious that people are still living in temporary, run-down environments," Grosfeld said. "[The government] shouldn't be waiting around for a person like Steve Kanstoroom to be putting together this information. The fact that these claims are still out there, that people are living in the way they are, demonstrates their needs have not been met."

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