Client questions on private insurance are complex too. Because of the nature of the storm, there are numerous disputes over the causes of the damage and who should have to pay for it.
In one Long Island case, for example, a man living in a houseboat damaged by both rain and wind struggled with whether to go to his home insurance provider or the flood insurance provider.
Lawyers said they frequently hear from people who are waiting for their insurer to determine coverage. Some landlords who need to make repairs can't go ahead because they haven't yet received insurance funds to pay for the work.
Where clients have lost their entire homes and all their possessions, lawyers must advise them on whether to sell their property and start over or wait for aid money that may not amount to much.
"For those people who were substantially underinsured, it's a tough gamble," said New Orleans plaintiff's attorney Soren Gisleson, who spoke at a recent state bar training on how to prepare property loss and flood claims after a major disaster. "Do you go into debt now in hopes that the feds give you some sort of money in the future to pay off that debt and to float yourself, or do you cut your losses and move on?"
Gisleson litigated hundreds of flood, homeowners and commercial claims after Katrina. The best thing lawyers can do for clients in the wake of a natural disaster, he advised, is to take steps to recover as much as they can early on in the adjustment process with their insurance companies.
That means putting together a thorough flood claim with ample documentation of losses and encouraging clients to follow up daily to push their claim to the top of the pile.
"Flood insurance cases are not good cases from a plaintiff's attorney standpoint," Gisleson said. "From the second you come in to help somebody with their flood claim and carry it into a lawsuit, you're eating into their recovery."
Lawyers with experience helping people through natural disasters said it's critical to steer clients toward private grants and loans when FEMA or private insurance claims aren't enough.
"It becomes less of a legal job and more of a lobbying job," said Philip Wellner, an upstate attorney who helped clients through Hurricane Irene last year. "So much of it is lobbying anywayyou're lobbying with insurers and FEMA. Look at other sources of potential coverage for damages too."
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