Martijn Hart

Hurricane Sandy victims allege engineering report alterations

Families say flawed home assessments prevent them from receiving insurance payouts more than two years after superstorm

Victoria Marvelli and her husband, Al Marvelli, thought they had finally made it. Just two days before Christmas in 2011, they closed on their dream home, nestled at the end of a cul-de-sac right on the water in the quiet coastal town of Seaford, New York. Four months later, they were married. Soon after, Victoria Marvelli, 34, became pregnant with their first child, Anthony.

“We did everything right. We paid our taxes. We got married. We bought our house,” Marvelli said, sitting in the one-bedroom basement apartment that she and the rest of her family now call home. “Now we sit there some nights and think, ‘Is this nightmare ever going to end?’ It feels like there’s no end in sight.”

The Marvellis — Victoria, Al, Anthony and 9-month-old triplets Caroline, Katherine and Madison — now live in two small rooms piled floor to ceiling with all their remaining possessions in the basement of her parents’ house in the New York City borough of Queens. Cribs are crammed between a sofa and a bookshelf; what was once a basement bar is now covered with insurance papers.

“We sit here all day, my 2-year-old and my 9-month-olds, and watch TV. We hang out, we run around, and we try to make the best of life. But my husband is starting to get depressed because it’s not easy living in a house like this.”

Meanwhile, the Marvellis’ dream house sits empty, large cracks visible in its concrete foundation, its interior gutted. More than two and a half years after Superstorm Sandy hit in October 2012, the Marvellis said they are still waiting for the full insurance payout and federal grant money they were promised to make their home livable again.

Frustrated and blocked by what Victoria Marvelli called “bureaucratic baloney,” her family is not alone. Last week an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has started talks with attorneys to settle some of the 1,500 pending lawsuits in New York and New Jersey over underpaid, altered or denied claims.

The lawsuits have been brought by homeowners like Deborah Ramey and Larry Raisfeld, who allege that their engineering reports were altered to say their damage was not caused by Superstorm Sandy.

As evidence, Ramey and Raisfeld have presented two engineering reports, both generated by the same engineer, George Hernemar, that reach drastically different conclusions. In the first, Ramey and Raisfeld were told the hurricane damaged their house beyond repair. The second report, made for the firm U.S. Forensic, blamed the damage on soil settlement, so the Wright National Flood Insurance Co. refused to pay for structural damage.

U.S. magistrate judges handling the Raimey case have called the insurance company’s actions “reprehensible gamesmanship.” U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary Brown said during a November hearing that he feared such actions could be widespread. On Friday the two U.S. senators from New Jersey asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate how rampant such underestimation by insurers has been.

Neither U.S. Forensic nor attorneys at Wright National Flood Insurance returned calls for comment. 

‘We did everything right. We paid our taxes. We got married. We bought our house. Now we sit there some nights and think, ‘Is this nightmare ever going to end?’ It feels like there’s no end in sight.’

Victoria Marvelli

Superstorm Sandy victim

Separately, the offices of Long Island firm HiRise Engineering were raided by investigators from the New York attorney general’s office on Feb. 18. A criminal investigation has been launched into similar allegations over altered reports by HiRise subcontractors.

In a statement, HiRise Engineering President Joe Celentano wrote, “HiRise has a 15-year history of ethical business practices and supports FEMA’s initiative to resolve all the outstanding Superstorm Sandy claims. We are cooperating to the fullest extent possible with all parties in an effort to address and resolve the issues that have been raised.”

But Benjamin Rajotte, who leads the Disaster Relief Clinic at the Touro Law Center on Long Island, said that the altered reports are just part of a “larger, systemic problem within the flood insurance program.”

“The full claim file, including draft engineering reports and often all of the photographs that were taken, are not disclosed unless you actually file a lawsuit,” he said. “But in order to file a lawsuit, homeowners need to find a lawyer and then comply with onerous paperwork requirements and arguably beat FEMA’s interpretation of the lawsuit deadline.”

That’s something Marvelli said she couldn’t find time — or money — to do.

“The paperwork and the time, everything that they want — it’s just ridiculous. They want you to basically jump through hoops and go through fire, and there is just no way to get them every single thing they want,” she said. “But we are not asking for a million dollars. We just want $130,000 to build my house.”

On Thursday, Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., told Al Jazeera she will call for a full review of all Sandy-related FEMA claims, even those not currently involved in litigation. Rice, who represents a district in one of the counties hardest hit by Sandy on Long Island, sits on the House Committee on Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA.

The Marvellis' damaged home on Long Island, N.Y.
Martijn Hart

“Every single claim has to be reviewed, whether they were denied or paid out or how much they were paid out,” Rice said. “We have identified hundreds and hundreds of homeowners who were affected by this. So we have to look at every single claim and see if every claim was treated the way it should be. Were you rejected for the wrong reasons, or did you not get enough money? And I think that it’s only fair, because how are people ever going to know if they got what they deserved? That’s going to take some time.”

FEMA didn't respond specifically to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on Rice’s proposal but did provide a copy of a Feb. 13 letter to magistrates written by Brad Kieserman, a deputy associate administrator for insurance at the agency.

“While I am unable to speak to the veracity of the allegations regarding the engineering reports, I do know our policyholders now question the integrity of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) claims process,” Kieserman wrote. “To that end, FEMA is committed to establishing a process to resolve all Hurricane Sandy insurance claims where there is evidence of questionable engineering practices, and I am committed to ensuring NFIP business practices going forward are fair and transparent.”

For Marvelli, the wait has been long enough. She said that because of the damage to the foundation, her house needs to be torn down and rebuilt. But she said she is confident that she and her husband could break ground in as little as six months if they ever receive the money they need.

“One day, when all the hoops are jumped through and all the red tape has been crossed, we will get our dream home back,” Marvelli said, holding her squirming triplets on the sofa. “My children have not seen the inside of their home yet, and I would really like to get them into their own home. Hopefully by the end of the year — but I said that last year. And the year before. So I don’t know how long it’s going to take.”

Erica Pitzi contributed reporting to this article. 

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