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I have been doing some volunteer legal work with some local bar associations helping out on insurance questions for those impacted by Hurricane Sandy. I recently attended an information session about FEMA and insurance that was offered by one of these Bar Associations (I may be taking a leadership role re insurance for one of them). While my legal practice involves insurance it generally is not at the ground level homeowners disaster level. I understand insurance and construction, flood vs. wind and time element issues. These often entail considerable time to resolve. What I do not understand is how poor the information collection, dissemination and payment processes are for natural and man-made (terrorism) disasters. There is the US government’s DHS’ portal disasterassistance.gov which provides some assistance. It is however hugely incomplete, which makes the whole process needlessly time consuming and counter-productive.

FEMA is a payer of last resort; but the homeowner files first with it, and separately with their insurer if they have one. If they have flood coverage that would file that with either FEMA or their insurer, depending on how it was purchased (why flood and wind are handled separately is another travesty I will leave to another time). If the claimant might receive a grant or want a loan, they will file with the SBA or any State or local agency that is offering such. D-SNAP food benefits would essentially be automatic for those who were already in the SNAP program through the USDA and local administration. A separate filing would otherwise need to be made.

For the New York region, storms on the level of Sandy are infrequent. I can accept that there might not be the level of coordination that exists along the Gulf or Florida, or California for earthquakes. In fact, there is no universal reporting form and system for natural or man-made disasters that would independent of the claimant link to all affected government agencies, insurers and NGOs and in real time permit transparent multi-organizational management of the claim by other agencies, insurers and NGOs. If there were, the process could be faster, as the claimant would only need to file once; the agencies, insurers, NGOs would see what each other have decided to do in real time, and could make a unified decision about relief and award. This would reduce fraud and avert subsequent recoupment and reconsiderations. This is basic project management for those in the business community. It may be more complicated given different IT systems, but I have yet to find that this is even on any organization’s radar. I looked at FEMA’s plans through 2014, and while they intend to expand their community outreach (which is good), no universal disaster reporting and payment portal is planned.It is as if we were still in the 19th Century.

I suppose I am naive and I should just accept the rationale that disaster relief takes time. The bureaucracies may prefer it this way. I am not that accepting however and intend to see what can be done to modernize this process.