Md. Isabel activist takes his expertise to Florida

Mission: Steve Kanstoroom, a veteran of the battles over flood insurance after last year's tropical storm, is warning those hit by Hurricane Charley to be aware.

August 28, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. - Steve Kanstoroom, whose home on Maryland's Eastern Shore was gutted last year by Tropical Storm Isabel, wandered up a driveway near Florida's Gulf coast this week and found a couple sorting through the wreckage left by Hurricane Charley. The washer and dryer, the furniture, the clothes and even the walls - everything in the first-floor apartment seemed a total loss to Rachel Zammit.

She said her flood insurance adjuster set the damage at $1,000. The stress, she said, has her smoking again.

Kanstoroom walked to his car and pulled out a binder full of articles and documents showing how Isabel victims in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina banded together and got the federal government to acknowledge a breakdown in the National Flood Insurance Program and authorize millions in new payments to flood victims.

"Read these," he said, handing Zammit some papers. "And tell everyone you know."

In the days since Hurricane Charley tore into Florida, many have flocked here to help clean up. Caravans of tree-service trucks with out-of-state plates crawl down the highways, power crews from across the region are working to string the lines back up again, and Red Cross volunteers drive vans through devastated neighborhoods, yelling through bullhorns that they have water and hot meals.

But for Kanstoroom and other veterans of the battles over flood insurance that followed Isabel, their mission in Florida was different: to warn whoever will listen to be on guard. The storm was one bad night, but the fight over settlements from the federal flood insurance program has been a yearlong nightmare, one they worry is about to be repeated.

"It's the same story, different place," Kanstoroom said. "There's just no reason to put Floridians through this."

A busy visit

During his visit, Kanstoroom talked to reporters. He phoned federal and state government officials. He ventured out to damaged communities to find flood victims. And he staked out a prayer service for Charley victims - where he got a moment with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

For six months, Kanstoroom, 45, the father of two young girls, has been ubiquitous in the effort to win increased settlements for Isabel victims. Incensed by the settlement offer his elderly neighbors received after the storm, he took two decades of experience as a consultant designing fraud detection systems for the financial industry and trained it on the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

He discovered in February that some adjusters used software that calculated settlement proposals using a price database designed for estimating costs of new construction, not the more expensive work of repair and renovations needed after a natural disaster. Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes noted that issue and others Kanstoroom had raised in a congressional hearing that resulted in a law mandating an overhaul of the NFIP.

Kanstoroom met repeatedly with Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. and top officials at the NFIP. As he questioned the effectiveness of the review of Isabel settlements, he said, adjusters in the program called with information and hid documents for him in alleys, under a refuse bin and in bushes.

Lea Ann McBride, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, of which the NFIP is a part, said most of the post-Charley efforts are in the "response and recovery" phase, and the flood insurance agency hasn't played much of a role. She said flood damage is less of an issue with Charley, which hit land as a Category 4 hurricane, resulting in storm surges but also widespread wind damage. The worst Isabel damage, particularly in Maryland, was from flooding.

But Kanstoroom, accompanied by Isabel activists Mark Childress and Beth Midgett from North Carolina and Fred Gentry from Virginia, said they see the agency repeating the errors that prompted thousands of complaints after Isabel.

Midgett said she got a preview when Hurricane Alex flooded her home and others in Hatteras early this month. She said the prices in adjusters' settlement offers used after Alex were even lower than they were after Isabel - for example, 69 cents a square yard to pay for removing carpet after the recent storm versus $1.53 before.

`One or two sentences'

Kanstoroom said he thinks much of the problem could be cleared up with "one or two sentences from the right public officials" demanding that settlements be based on repair and replacement costs instead of a new-construction database. He sent a letter to Michael Brown, head of FEMA, requesting a meeting to go over information he's gathered, and Isabel victims started a call-in campaign backing up the request. He hasn't heard back, he said.

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