Always be skeptical. That's today's message. Always beware when the narrative that starts with disaster turns to a good news story that leads to good feelings. Things are rarely that simple. Always be prepared for a cautionary tale.
We have seen in recent weeks the disaster that struck Fort McMurray. The devastation and the thousands of people left without homes. We have also been heartened by the vast amounts donated to the Red Cross to help the survivors and the promises of the provincial and federal governments to help those affected and make that help speedy and simplified.
It's good to be skeptical, because what happened over the three years after Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast of the United States is a formidable cautionary tale.
Frontline: Business of Disaster (PBS, 10 p.m.) tells that tale. It looks at who actually profited in the aftermath of Sandy and tries to figure out why, three years later, thousands of people are still without homes, while billions of dollars were spent on recovery efforts.
We all remember the ferocity of the storm, and if we don't, the footage is shown to remind us. Enormous waves pouring into the streets of Staten Island and the Jersey Shore, cars being swept down the streets and, in the aftermath, street after street of ruined homes.
"God bless you, Mr. President," some people said to Barack Obama when he arrived on the scene and promised he would cut red tape and "make things right." We see footage from three years later and a group of residents staging a protest. A woman steps up to a microphone and says, "We are still without a home, we're facing foreclosure, and we need help."
She sure does, and reporter Laura Sullivan of NPR – the focus of this Frontline who has been tracking the problems for years now – tries to find out why. (Sullivan has previously reported on how the Red Cross exaggerated its role in helping Sandy victims and put huge emphasis on public relations.) First, she discovers a major issue with the insurance companies that issued flood-insurance policies. Most of the affected residents had that policy. But as the claims mounted and the companies responded, a pattern became clear: There was an "exclusion" to the policy that kept coming up. It was a counterclaim by the insurance companies that "earth movement" had taken place over the years and the home had been damaged by that, not the flooding.
Sullivan talks to lawyers – some 600 survivors are suing 20 insurance companies – who got access to insurance company reports on the damage. There are many incidents where an engineer's report on home damages were changed by an insurance company manager in order to diminish the impact of the flooding. And, of course, diminish the payout. The insurance companies assert that a "peer review" process by another engineer, who hasn't seen the house, meant that a different conclusion was understandably reached. The mind-boggling weasel behaviour makes you want to scream.
Worse is the realization that the insurance companies are not paying out their own money when they do pay. It's the U.S. government's money. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was tasked with overseeing the insurance company payments and, for a time, failed utterly to keep up. There were allegations of fraud, the offices of engineers were raided and documents seized. But the issue still isn't resolved.
At its heart, the insurance issue begins with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Enormous amounts were paid out by insurers, using government money, and some members of the U.S. Congress began to see costs balloon, so they put pressure on insurance companies to lowball the amounts being paid out after Sandy.
The spiral of the boondoggle then expands. The program called Build It Back, set up by New York State government to help victims of Sandy, turned out to be disastrously ill-equipped to deal with the situation. While it was tasked with hiring qualified staff to deal with claims and help rebuild, many of those hired had only had experience working as store cashiers. Angry homeowners have gone in circles trying to get paperwork processed by staff that, clearly, have no idea what they are doing.
The upshot is this: Billions of dollars still haven't reached survivors. Insurance companies, whose flood policies are funded by the government, have made vast profits and little has been done to fix the administration problems. When the next disaster comes, as it surely will, it will be the same mess all over again. It's a shocking but necessary reality check on how disaster relief efforts are handled and mishandled.