Storm victims take claims for second look

Sun Staff

For nearly eight months, Annapolis resident Victoria Wheatley has been battling her insurance companies over coverage of her two-story home, condemned by the city after it was ravaged by Tropical Storm Isabel.

Her homeowner's insurance company maintained that floodwaters caused the damages. Her flood insurance company blamed the high winds. After losing the home she had lived in her entire life, Wheatley has yet to receive a dime in compensation.

Late yesterday morning, Wheatley met with representatives of the National Flood Insurance Program at South County Senior Center in Edgewater, the latest in a series of outreach meetings in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina for Isabel victims who believe they have been shortchanged by their insurance companies.

"I'm exhausted," said Wheatley, 59, handing over a pile of policyholder papers to an NFIP representative. "But the battle goes on."

This month, the NFIP - an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - made an unprecedented offer: to reopen any of the 24,000 claims filed by victims in six states and the District of Columbia.

That offer came in response to continued complaints from policyholders in states such as Maryland, where about 300 victims of the storm remain homeless. As of April 23, 736 policyholders had requested to have their claims reviewed.

Although yesterday's meeting in Anne Arundel County drew only about a dozen policyholders, FEMA officer Scott Wells called it a success. "This is a great opportunity to correct injustices for those people who have not had their expectations met," Wells said. "There's still a lot of angst, uncertainty and confusion out there."

Wells said much of the confusion comes from the paperwork required for resubmitting claims - a process many policyholders find overwhelming. Besides having exchanged more than 300 letters with her insurance companies, Wheatley said she has spent countless hours on the telephone with claims agents.

"Sometimes I've been on all day long," she said. "I don't understand why, if my house is gone and I'm the victim, they are treating me like I've done something wrong."

Like Wheatley, Steve and Sue Fitzsimmons attended the outreach meeting to seek help with their settlement, which covered only half the claim they submitted for the loss of their waterfront home in Pasadena. They declined to give the amount of that claim.

An NFIP representative assured the couple that their claim would be reviewed and that an adjuster would call them in the next few days.

Asked if the meeting made them more optimistic, the Fitzsimmonses shook their heads.

"It would have been better if the house had burned down," said Sue Fitzsimmons, adding that despite multiple visits from adjusters, their flood insurance company refuses to increase their settlement.

Also present at the outreach meeting were representatives from the state Department of Human Resources to help Isabel victims with non-insurance-related issues. Deborah Bryant, an emergency response coordinator for the department, said she and her staff get phone calls from victims of the storm on a daily basis.

"We're doing all that we can in our power to help," Bryant said. "Most people just want someone to talk to."

To publicize the outreach program, which will be held at five more Maryland locations in the next week, FEMA ran advertisements in local newspapers and sent letters to all 24,000 Isabel victims who filed claims.

On her way out the door of the Edgewater meeting, Wheatley said she felt encouraged.

"I'm glad I came today," she said. "They've given me some hope to keep fighting the fight."

For a full schedule of FEMA/NFIP outreach meetings, go to FEMA's Web site: at Those who attend a meeting should bring a policyholder number and the names of the insurance company, agent, adjuster and contractor.

Those who cannot attend the meetings can call the National Flood Insurance Program hotline at 1-800-427-4661, or go to FEMA's Web site and download the "Request for Review" form on the Community Outreach page. Fax the form to FEMA at 1-800-457-4232.

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