ANGELA DELLI SANTI
UNION BEACH, N.J. (AP) -- Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday the National Flood Insurance Program's handling of claims in New Jersey "has stunk," complaining that the program has been far too slow to get payments to victims of Superstorm Sandy, with tens of thousands of cases unresolved more than three months after the disaster.
The governor said excessive paperwork, inadequate staffing, cumbersome audits and the threat of financial penalties to carriers and adjusters is interfering with the timely issuance of payments, prolonging the suffering of many New Jersey residents hurt by Sandy.
"Our local insurance companies have been doing a great job of settling and moving these claims very quickly," Christie said. "The national flood insurance plan has stunk."
"I've been as patient as I'm going to be," the governor added. "They need to get more people into New Jersey, they need to get to work, they need to get to processing these things. People need to know how much money they're going to have."
At a briefing in hard-hit Union Beach, the governor said only 30 percent of Sandy flood claims had been settled in New Jersey.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency said later Tuesday that the latest data shows 37,000 of 73,000 New Jersey claims, or a little more than 50 percent, have been closed.
Likewise, the agency said more than half of the total 140,000 Sandy flood claims made in all states have been settled, with $3.7 billion paid out to storm victims. In New York, it said 32,000 of 56,000 claims were closed.
"FEMA's top priority is to get resources to those in need as quickly as possible, while also meeting our requirements under the law. That's why we've given our private sector partners additional flexibility to quickly pay advance and partial payments, and reduced paperwork requirements so the process can move as quickly as possible," the agency said in a statement.
In New Jersey, Sandy damaged or destroyed about 346,000 housing units, resulting in estimated damage and future storm mitigation costs of $37 billion.
With Wednesday marking the 100th day since Sandy struck, the state and charities are still waiting for the federal settlements so they can determine how much to award in grants to help people rebuild, the Republican governor said.
Christie said he is asking New Jersey's congressional delegation to pressure FEMA to improve the performance of the flood insurance program, which he called "a disgrace."
"I'm not going to sit around and take it quietly any longer," he said. "We've gotten all kinds of assurances that haven't been met."
In comparison, the governor said 85 percent of homeowner claims had been settled, or closed, out of a total of more than 430,000 claims filed by homes and businesses.
He said "it is imperative that insurance claims be brought to final resolution so that residents can make critical decisions on if and how to rebuild."
While he was expressing frustration with the pace of claims settlements, Christie at the same time urged residents to stay patient.
"This is an unprecedented set of circumstances in the state of New Jersey, so we have to have patience with one another," he said. "I'd like to come here or to any of the other communities that have been affected and wave a magic wand, but I can't. It's going to take time, and it's going to take effort."
Christie administration officials set up a mobile office inside the local firehouse to assist residents who are having trouble getting answers from insurers or governments. There was no shortage of takers.
Eduardo Rocha, 42, who was walking with crutches as the result of injuries sustained in an auto accident, had come to ask FEMA how high he would have to raise his house -- 2 feet -- and to apply for a $30,000 grant to help defray the cost, which hadn't yet been estimated.
James Scott was clutching a handful of insurance settlement papers while standing in line on behalf of his 74-year-old mother, whose heavily flooded home had been taken down to its studs. Her flood insurance claim had been settled for $38,000 -- $50,000 less than the estimated cost of rebuilding. The mother, Theresa Scott, was staying with another son in South Carolina until her own home could be repaired.
Christie also announced that the state Department of Banking and Insurance will start requiring private insurers to respond within five days to Sandy-related complaints filed with state. Insurance companies currently have 15 business days to respond to the department.
Associated Press Writer Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton contributed to this report.
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