Sandy's victims could spend billions out of pocket

WASHINGTON Thu Nov 8, 2012 4:19pm EST

A house was pushed off it's foundation during Hurricane Sandy on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, November 7, 2012 in this handout photo courtesy of the governor's office. Picture taken November 7, 2012. REUTERS/New Jersey Governor's Office/Tim Larsen/Handout

A house was pushed off it's foundation during Hurricane Sandy on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, November 7, 2012 in this handout photo courtesy of the governor's office. Picture taken November 7, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/New Jersey Governor's Office/Tim Larsen/Handout

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Leave it to a financial adviser like Christopher Clayton of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, to keep a running tab on how much Superstorm Sandy has cost him out of his own pocket -- money that no insurance company or federal emergency agency is going to cover.

Clayton says he is looking at close to $7,500 in expenses, and he's still counting. He paid $2,000 to clear the cracked portion of a 100-year-old tree from his yard; his homeowner's insurance only covers removal if the tree hit his house. There was the $700 in extra child care and close to $5,000 in lost business, in part because he's been without a personal assistant for close to a week -- she got stranded on Long Island during the storm and wasn't able to get into the office for days.

Clayton is far from unique; people all along Sandy's path are discovering that the storm wreaked havoc on their wallets along with their trees and basements. Even those who escaped serious damage have seen unexpected costs on everything from hotel rooms to dry ice to making alternate transportation plans when subways flood.

Sandy is expected to cost some $50 billion and only about $20 billion of that will be covered by insurance, according to risk-modeling firm Eqecat, Inc. Some of the $30 billion that is left will be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but that won't reach everyone or every expense.

(The Internal Revenue Service helps a bit; here is a Reuters guide to which out-of-pocket expenses may be deductible; link.reuters.com/pyn83t).

How did Sandy hit household finances? Let me count the ways.

1. Damage not covered by insurance From trees downed on the garden to cracked windows that don't rise to deductible levels, property damage has proven one of the biggest financial challenges to those in the path of the storm.

FEMA does offer grants that cover some repairs. But it won't cover them all and the grant program is not available for vacation homes. It's not clear that every homeowner with a torn shutter or a few missing roof times will have access to those FEMA grants.

2. Expenses for the severely underinsured

Reverend Carl Wilton of the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in New Jersey says as many as a quarter of his congregation of 500 people may be suffering financial hardships because of the storm, but the cleanup efforts are so intense, there's no way to know how much many folks have lost.

Many of his flock live in lagoon-bordering areas which flooded. "These are places where people should have had flood insurance, but it's just so expensive. I was talking to a 92-year-old church member who's lived around here most of his life, and a storm this severe was new to him. So a lot of people didn't take flood insurance, and it was something of a gamble."

People whose homes were destroyed and who didn't have appropriate coverage will be hit hardest. The FEMA grants program tops out at $31,900, far less than it would cost to replace a home. Even people in less dire circumstances will have to pick up bills on items like hotel rooms and business-related losses that their insurance could have covered had they purchased the right policies.

3. Forcing the powerless to stay elsewhere Many people who live in New Jersey and the lower half of Manhattan followed in the footsteps of Sarah Cunningham, a publicist who moved to a hotel when she lost power in her Greenwich Village apartment. She, her sister and a neighbor lived in the Eventi, a midtown hotel, for four nights. Cunningham wasn't carrying renters insurance to cover incidentals related to the storm -- and just losing power doesn't usually qualify someone to get reimbursed for a hotel stay anyway. Cunningham's little vacation cost her almost $1,000.

4. Childcare

Babysitters of all ages have been in very high demand, as Sandy closed schools up and down the East Coast and left parents scrambling for last-minute help with kid wrangling. According to the website UrbanSitter.com, parents in New York City pay $15.50 for babysitting, and that's just for one child. Factor in two more siblings and that rate climbs to more than $20 an hour on average.

5. Lost food and perishables

Cunningham also estimates that she tossed as much as $100 in spoiled groceries.

Neither Con Edison nor Public Service Electric & Gas plan to reimburse customers for spoiled food due Sandy-related outages because the local utilities were not directly responsible for power loss.

While Cunningham tried to save money on food, eating out set her back another $40 a day because, as she puts it, "After a while you get sick of rice cakes and peanut butter."

6. Lost work Those who weren't able to work -- particularly at part-time jobs or in sales-related professions -- were hit hard by the storm. Clayton estimates that he may have given up more than $10,000 in lost income in canceled sales calls.

In some cases, business interruption coverage can help, but Clayton says his policy has some exclusions that could render it useless in this particular situation.

7. Transportation

With subways crippled in New York City, cab-flagging became a competitive sport. For Cunningham, several round trips between the Eventi and her apartment, which should cost her about $6 on the train, set her back more than $40.

8. Hardware and cleanup supplies Sandy's victims dished out for all sorts of cleanup and repair supplies, from chainsaws to vacuum cleaners, sump pumps and deodorizing sprays. That created a business spike for hardware stores, but an added pocketbook headache for consumers.

Clayton's made more than a few hardware store runs himself, and has spent plenty of spare time cleaning up messes related to the storm. But for all the dents to his wallet, his spirit remains strong: "We're resilient folks," he says of his New Jersey shore neighbors. "We'll rebuild and come out of this stronger and closer to each other." Albeit a little bit light on cash.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone, Linda Stern and Andrew Hay)

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