How's this for red tape: A hurricane destroys your home. You call the Federal Emergency Management Agency's toll-free number to register for help. A machine tells you they're too busy, and to hang up and use their Web site. So you visit Fema.gov and get the following message:
"The system is unavailable. Please try again later or contact the FEMA Helpline at the number listed below."
Many victims of this busy hurricane season are all too familiar with the routine. And Steve Kanstoroom, who's been watching FEMA closely, is hardly surprised. Kanstoroom has come to expect such gunk in the wheels of disaster recovery. He's spent the past two and a half years collecting such stories at FEMAInfo.us, a Web site that's largely critical of the federal government's response to disasters. The stories he tells there will make your spine tingle and your heart hurt.
For Kanstoroom, interest in the subject is more than academic. His Oxford, Md., home was battered in 2003 by Hurricane Isabel. But he was lucky; he had flood insurance.
The initial compensation offered him through the National Flood Insurance Program was $85,000, well below what he says were the true costs to repair his home. So he challenged the finding and FEMA instructed his flood insurance company to pay him $250,000 instead.
Kanstoroom says his personal journey through FEMA's bureaucracy gave him a bird's-eye view of the agency's problems, and he began to chronicle them on his site. Since then, he's testified numerous times before Congress and has become the de facto hurricane and flood victim advocate.
Some of the problems Kanstoroom discusses are basic. FEMA's busy signals, for example.
In October, FEMA's Nicole Andrews told MSNBC.com that the agency had staffed up to 12,000 telephone operators, many on loan from the IRS. Some, she said, were outside contractors.
One of those outside contractors is Augmention Inc., a call-center firm based in Rockville, Md., just outside Washington. According to the Washington Post, Augmentation had about 1,000 people answering the phones for FEMA last month. According to documents on FEMA's Web site, the firm has a $31 million contract for "temporary staffing."
But the company isn't great at answering its own phones. An operator hung up twice on a reporter who asked for the name of a public relations official. Eventually, messages were left for company executives, but they were not returned. And FEMA representatives didn't return phone calls seeking comments about Augmentation or about the FEMA call centers.
But troubles getting through on the telephone are just the beginning, warns Kanstoroom. Those who do get through to FEMA, and to their insurance companies, are in for other surprises.
Take those lucky ones, like Kanstoroom, who have flood insurance. The army of adjusters wandering around the Gulf Coast is swollen with the ranks of the inexperienced, he says. Many are trained en masse during weekend seminars. They come from all walks of life. After all, the job can be very lucrative. Efficient adjusters can earn $1,000 a day or more.
"When you are standing outside your hurricane-damaged home, you are the last person on the planet to think they've sent you someone who's never adjusted a claim before," Kanstoroom said. That's particularly true when they arrive wearing a FEMA jacket, or driving a car sporting an insurance company logo. Kanstoroom's adjuster in 2003 was on leave from the military, having just returned from the Iraq war, he said.
An adjuster's qualifications are no trivial matter. Adjusters make decisions that hurricane victims must live with for the rest of their lives. Errors of omission –- say, compensation for mold mitigation –- can be the difference between rebuilding a damaged home and losing one.
Alan Jackson used to be a claims adjuster based in Alabama before he went to law school. Now he sues insurance companies that he says intentionally lowball victims. He also says FEMA and insurance agencies will literally let anyone become an adjuster. In fact, in September, Jackson says he attended a Mobile, Ala., training seminar with 500 people in attendance. When the time for administering the certification test came, the administrator gave all the correct answers to the students.
"Everyone got 100 on the test," he said. Jackson signed a sworn affidavit describing the incident, which Kanstoroom submitted as part of his congressional testimony on Oct. 20.
Jackson recommends hurricane victims ask their adjuster for a resume; if it's thin, he says insist on getting another adjuster, even if that means going to the back of the line and waiting a couple of months for insurance relief.
Still in trailers
The inefficiencies in the system may sound like typical government bungling, but they come with a hefty price, Kanstoroom warns. As every day passes, consumers face a steeper mountain to restore their lives. Just ask the victims of 2003's Hurricane Isabel that are still living in FEMA trailers. In June, some of them joined a $2 billion lawsuit filed against FEMA and government officials and federal contractors for allegedly mishandling their 2003 claims.
Among other items, the lawsuit alleges that sales agents told consumers that flood insurance would ensure their homes would be restored to "pre-flood conditions"; meanwhile, adjusters were being trained to give victims only a fraction of their home's value.
Kanstoroom, who advised plaintiffs in that case, says he worries that history might be repeating itself. He sent a letter to Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., last week urging him to re-examine FEMA's role in Katrina, Rita and Wilma recovery.
"Adjusting abuses are being carried out by some of the same firms that are named in the $2 billion lawsuit," he said in his Oct. 20 testimony. And then later, to Lott, he added: "Time is of the essence, and without immediate action on the part of Congress, tens of thousands of victims will suffer needlessly as victims have from prior storms."