Smith renews push to gain relief for victims of Isabel

County executive seeks financial help, reforms in federal flood insurance

September 14, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

With 65 Baltimore County families still living in trailers and others in rental properties because their homes were damaged by Tropical Storm Isabel last year, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said yesterday that government should continue to help storm victims.

"We can't tire just because it's been a year later," Smith said at a news conference, where he called for reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program and requested more financial assistance for storm victims.

Smith said he was proud of his administration's response to the storm, including the emergency assistance to victims and help in cleaning up battered communities. But he said the county would continue to push for help for victims until "the last person has exhausted all reasonable avenues to get the compensation they need."

Smith is asking the state to increase funding for the Isabel Property Relief Act, which provides low-interest loans and other financial assistance to rehabilitate or renovate primary residences damaged by Isabel. The state has allocated $7.5 million in federal and state money for the loans.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said Smith's request could be addressed in the next budget.

The county has provided another $3 million in financial assistance for Isabel victims, Smith said. The executive said he also is seeking from state and federal agencies $2 million for businesses and $3 million to build sea walls and barriers to protect the county's shoreline.

Tropical Storm Isabel rolled into Maryland on Sept. 18, destroying or severely damaging more than 330 homes in eastern Baltimore County. More than 150 people had to be rescued from their homes at the height of the flooding.

Nearly a year later, Mike Vivirito, president of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association, said many residents there, one of the hardest-hit areas, are still struggling.

"It's at a point where it's encouraging for some, but others are still living in trailers and still trying to get settlements from [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]," Vivirito said.

Some houses are still in ruins. Dumpsters dot properties where contractors are rebuilding, he said.

Steve Kanstoroom, whose Talbot County home was gutted by Tropical Storm Isabel, and who and has become a leading spokesman for the flood victims, is preparing a report for Smith to show the underlying causes of the insurance problems and possible solutions.

"It's a nightmarish hell where these people have received pennies on the dollar," he said. "These people paid for a safety net only to find there is not one."

This year, Kanstoroom discovered 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. Although federal flood insurance officials launched a comprehensive review of Isabel claims, which generated additional checks for thousands of victims, officials and victims' advocates say problems persist.

For example, some victims' losses were evaluated by the same insurance adjusters who surveyed their damage the first time, Kanstoroom said yesterday.

In May, Smith requested that the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore investigate the performance of Computer Sciences Corp., the company contracted by the federal government to handle the daily operations of the National Flood Insurance Program. Yesterday, Smith said the U.S. attorney's office has not provided a response.

A spokesman for Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. said yesterday that the office expects to release the findings of the state's investigation into Isabel complaints the first week in October.

Smith is planning to tour businesses affected by Isabel on Thursday. Friday, at the Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Station, the county is to hold a ceremony to thank emergency workers from neighboring jurisdictions for their help during Isabel. On Saturday, Smith plans to talk with 911 operators who handled the calls during last year's storm and then attend a community potluck dinner at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bowleys Quarters.

On Sunday, Smith is to take a bus tour of the Watersedge area and Millers Island with federal officials.

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