Nonprofit legal group now helping 3,000 households as companies leave them high and dry.
Superstorm Sandy washed away much of the first floor of Sue Nurnberger’s two-story home in Amity Harbor on the South Shore of Suffolk County.
Then came the second wave — this one perhaps more crushing.
Two months after the storm ravaged Long Island’s coastline, Nurnberger got word that her insurance company agreed to pay only a fraction of what her flood policy covered.
Nurnberger has lived in Amity Harbor on the South Shore of Suffolk County for the past 36 years. Her house, located within 500 feet of the Great South Bay, is built on a four-foot slab to prevent flooding. That worked well — until Sandy.
It took three days for floodwaters in the area to recede and when they did, Nurnberger and her husband, Raymond, saw boats in the street, the roof blown off one house and another house washed away — a green toilet bowl was all that remained. Two feet of water filled the first floor of their two-story home.
“We’ve gone through $100,000 [in restoration costs] and we’re not done,” said Nurnberger, 57, who works in the operations department at Newsday. “We’ve gone through our savings and the insurance company gave us a settlement of less than $66,000.
“We bought flood insurance because we were afraid of this, and now that we’re flooded they don’t want to pay. I bought the maximum $250,000 of coverage. If I’m covered up to $250,000, they should pay up to $250,000 for me to make my house livable.”
Not knowing where to turn, someone suggested calling the New York Legal Assistance Group, a not-for-profit law office providing free civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers. It is a beneficiary agency of UJA-Federation of New York.
Keiko Cervantes-Ospina, supervising attorney for NYLAG’s Long Island storm response unit, said her office is now “looking at the best way to appeal the [Nurnbergers’] insurance settlement and examining consumer laws that would protect homeowners from contractors who are taking advantage of an emergency situation.”
“There are a lot of irate customers trying to get more money from insurance,” she added. “I have not seen anyone get even close to their maximum coverage.”
Although FEMA officials were unable to comment on individual cases, the standard flood insurance policy is an actual cash value policy in which depreciation applies to the contents of the building that are ineligible for replacement cost, such as carpeting, appliances and personal property.
Cervantes-Ospina is just one of 27 full-time NYLAG staff lawyers — including more than 20 newly hired lawyers — who were deployed to the storm-ravaged areas of the city and Long Island within days after the storm. They were assigned to 30 different community-based organizations and a mobile help center to assist individuals, synagogues, day schools, yeshivas and other community-based not-for-profits in dealing with and insurance companies.
“We have helped over 3,000 households and more than 50 synagogues, day schools and other Jewish organizations,” said Yisroel Schulman, NYLAG’s co-founder and president.
NYLAG is also helping Stanislav Izgiayev, 34, and his wife, Yuliana, 25, who narrowly escaped from floodwaters that engulfed their car as they tried to flee their rented apartment in Sheepshead Bay.
“My wife was pregnant and we have a year-old child, and as we started to drive we got about 200 feet before water rushed into the car,” Izgiayev said. “I had expected water from the clouds, I didn’t know that in less than a minute water would flood the car. The car stopped. People who were close to us saw the baby crying in the car and helped us to open the door. I was in a panic. When the door opened, I started to swim, carrying the child on my shoulder.”
The couple walked and swam three miles though flooded streets to safety.
“We are lucky we are alive,” Izgiayev said. “It was like a Hollywood movie. Everybody was running. It was like the end of the world.”
The Isgaiyevs are members of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst and they went there for help because not only had they lost their car, but also their ground-floor apartment had flooded and they had no food.
“For three days I was in shock,” he recalled, adding that officials of the community center immediately went to work to help them find another apartment, provided them with food and cash and connected them with a NYLAG attorney.
Izgiayev said his wife’s immigration papers were destroyed in the flood. NYLAG arranged to fast track her request for a green card. She had entered the U.S. as a refugee, and once she gets the green card she will be eligible to apply for naturalization, which NYLAG will help with as well.
“My main business is trucking and I lost three trucks,” said Izgiayev, who now lives in Coney Island. “I owe $50,000, I’m without a business and have two babies. I’m now a babysitter because my wife is working in a school in Borough Park.”
Schulman recalled that Sandy struck on Sunday night, Oct. 28 and continued into Monday.
“On Tuesday we contacted Louisiana Legal Services, which had experienced Hurricane Katrina, and asked them what legal services were needed after the storm,” he said. “We had a telephone conference with them on Tuesday and Wednesday, with some of our staff in Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island calling in on cell phones. Some had lost their own homes or had homes with significant damage.
“Over the next week, we used webinar technology to train our NYLAG staffers. We had a three-hour conversation with senior people in New Orleans [Legal Services] because this was all brand new to us; we had never done any of this. They taught us how to do FEMA applications and insurance filing. A week later, we used webinar to train another 1,200 pro bono attorneys – probably one of the largest training sessions for attorneys ever held.”
All of NYLAG’s work was done at remote locations because its offices at 7 Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan were without electricity for two months because of the storm. UJA-Federation of New York gave NYLAG’s 20-member executive staff about 5,000 square feet of office space at its 59th Street headquarters. The rest of the staff — 200 people, including about 150 lawyers — worked in donated space provided by 11 different city law firms.
UJA-Federation offices also houses a legal service hotline — (212) 584-3365 — that received 75 to 100 calls a day from those impacted by the storm. It provides a comprehensive legal case consultation and Schulman said the number of calls has not slowed down because many other groups that set-up hotlines have closed them.
NYLAG lawyers, also, are still in the impacted areas. Schulman said two to four lawyers work on Sandy-related cases — twice a week from the Shorefront Y in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, as well as from the JCC of the Greater Five Towns and 28 other locations.
In addition, NYLAG’s mobile legal help center, a 41-foot van that contains three law offices and a mobile courtroom, operates six days a week – two days on Long Island and four days split between Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn. It travels to areas where there are no community-based organizations.
The mobile courtroom allows a client and a NYLAG lawyer to speak directly to a judge on a television screen in the van to request, among other things, an order for emergency housing.
Cervantes-Ospina said that because “the insurance world has historically not been an area that nonprofit civil legal service organizations have worked in, in this disaster we are working with larger private law firms in Manhattan to help us get up to speed. We now have an insurance attorney on staff who had worked in the private and government sectors. We are trying to maximize whatever benefits we can without going to court.”
Schulman pointed out that even though synagogues are not currently eligible for FEMA disaster assistance, certain parts of their buildings would be eligible if they are used as a community rooms or preschools. He said his office is helping synagogues navigate those rules.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this month that would provide direct relief to synagogues and churches damaged by Sandy. The Senate is expected to take up the bill soon.
The bill has received a mixed response from the American Jewish community, with the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America in favor. The Anti-Defamation League said it is generally concerned about the "risk to religious liberty posed when government funds transmitted to religious institutions directly advance the religious missions of those institutions." But it said it would not oppose this legislation because the "humanitarian needs" in the wake of Sandy are "tragic and significant."
The Reform movement has taken no position.
As for Nurnberger, she said that until last month she and her husband had lived with their daughter in Copiague, L.I. As their insurance appeal grinds on, they have now moved back into their home, living in their one bedroom on the second floor.
“We have a small refrigerator and a microwave,” she said. “I don’t have a kitchen or a functioning downstairs. I have only the walls and a floor. I’m putting down tiles so that if this happens again I won’t have to tear out the carpet. The floodwaters were filled with oil and gasoline that settled in the carpet. It took a long time to get the smell out of the house.”
Now that the smell is gone, Nurnberger is hoping not to get hit with a third wave — a denied appeal from the insurance company.