Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey was primarily a flood event. There was wind damage, but the truly disastrous devastation was the result of the storm surge. Now, thousands of homeowners and businesses face the challenge of recovering from that destruction, and the first line of defense for many is their flood insurance.

Flood insurance is underwritten and managed by the federal government: FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, administers the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is the only source of flood insurance coverage (private insurance companies long ago left the flood insurance market).

Many home and business owners don’t carry flood insurance. But for those who do — including virtually any homeowner whose house is in a designated flood zone, where the mortgage lender will always require flood insurance on the building — their contact with the program will be through an insurance adjuster. Typically, that adjuster will be an “independent adjuster” — a licensed professional who works on a contract basis, paid either by the insurance company that issued the flood policy, or paid directly by the NFIP. Adjusters earn a commission based on the amount of the claim, at a rate set either by the state or, in the case of NFIP claims, by the federal government.

Coastal Connection had an extensive interview this week with Wanda Hogan, an independent adjuster who is currently working “direct claims” on Long Island, New York, for the NFIP. Hogan is currently the president of an industry association, the National Association of Catastrophe Adjusters (NACA), whose members specialize in traveling to major disasters. Hogan explains: “We deal with flood, earthquake, major fires such as California has, where you have hundreds of houses that burn down at one time. We are not dealing with just one family at a time — we’re dealing with 40, 50, 100 different properties at one time. We specialize in major destruction. We don’t do everyday bathtub overflow claims.”

It’s her specialty, but Hogan also has a special awareness of what catastrophe means to the victims. “I tell people, ‘I know how you feel,’” she says, “And people say, ‘No you don’t.’ And I say, ‘Yes I do. I lost my home in Katrina.’ And I did. I lost my house. So I know from a personal standpoint how it is to wake up the day after a storm, and everything you own is in the back end of your car.”

Hogan told us that as an independent adjuster, her job is to get the homeowner the full amount allowed by the policy. “Legislatures and Congress set it up to where we have an incentive to pay the homeowner every single penny we can,” she says, “because the more the independent pays the homeowner, the more we make.”

But in the case of flood insurance, Hogan explains, there is very little wiggle room in the policies. Every policy is the same regardless of which insurance agent or insurance company issued it, because all the policies are carried by the NFIP and contain identical coverage. “In a normal homeowner’s claim, there is more leeway,” says Hogan. “We just don’t have that much leeway when it comes to flood. Flood is pretty cut and dried. We can either pay for it or we can’t.”

Still, when you’re dealing with suffering people on a daily basis, it gets personal. “We’re not a jaded occupation, to where the pain and the suffering of our insureds do not affect us,” says Hogan. “We are concerned about people, and we want to do the very best we can for them.” Hogan tells the story of one elderly homeowner — “a little 81-yeat-old lady. She was living in her basement, with a tenant upstairs, and the heat got destroyed. Of course she had six feet of water downstairs. And I was scared to death she was going to try to go back downstairs into that basement as soon as she got heat. But I have been back to see her, and she is still staying upstairs. So that’s good. You know — we worry about people.”

Basements have been a trouble spot on Long Island: Some homeowners have learned to their dismay that because they live in a basement apartment, their contents, and even some of the physical damage to the structure, are not covered. But Hogan says that most of the properties she has inspected have been more fortunate.

“One thing that I have found,” she says, “is that a lot of people are calling a level a basement, but it is not considered a basement by the NFIP. If there is a natural walkout — if you have one side of the house that has a natural walkout, and if you do not have to climb up to get out of it, that is not considered a basement. And so I’m telling people, for example: if you walk from your house into your garage, and you walk straight out, and your garage is not on an incline, and you can walk straight out on a level surface, that’s not a basement. That’s a first floor.” Any NFIP-certified adjuster would know this, says Hogan: “To be certified by NFIP and to keep our flood license, we have to attend an eight-hour seminar every year. And the basement issue is emphasized every single year.” The difference could mean that the owner’s possessions are covered, along with drywall, finish materials, and other parts of the physical dwelling that would not be covered in a basement.

But coverage for possessions and personal property has been another trouble area. Hogan says many homeowners never understood that contents of the dwelling are only covered if the customer has purchased a separate flood policy for contents. “Regular homeowners [policy] does not cover damage to contents in a flood, just like it doesn’t cover damage to your building in a flood,” she explains. “Flood damage to contents is insured through the NFIP. But your mortgage company only cares about the building which they have an interest in. They do not have an interest in your contents, so they don’t push the fact that you need contents coverage.”

If Hogan could give homeowners who haven’t been flooded one piece of advice, it would be to read their insurance policies. “Every insured, when they take out a policy, gets a paper copy of that policy in the regular mail. There’s a letter that says, ‘Read the policy and familiarize yourself with that policy.’ But nobody reads those policies. They just don’t.”

Even when a loss is covered, however, there can be delays involved. “We go see these houses, and then we have to write them up,” Hogan says. “With NFIP, we have a preliminary report that we have to file in 15 days. So we have to have photographs and descriptions of the interior and exterior waterlines in to NFIP within 15 days of us getting the claims.

So we have to go see them and then sometimes go back to do the final walkthrough and estimating.” Once that preliminary visit is done, Hogan says, homeowners are free to start repairing damage. But if they need money first, they may have to wait: after the final report goes to NFIP for review, Hogan says, it can be two months before a check is issued. “But we will give advances,” she says. “When we get there, we always offer them an option of getting an advance. Sometimes people take it and sometimes they don’t. But once I’ve seen the house, they can start tearing out and putting back.”

As a flood survivor herself, Hogan tries to offer comfort as well as money. “I tell people,” she says, “‘It will get better.’ And the women — I think sometimes women are more attached to the house than men. So I say, ‘Think of one thing about this house that you didn’t like — a color, a cabinet — well, now you can change it!’ And I say to them, ‘This is stuff. You can replace stuff. You cannot replace people.’”