class notes

Storm Watcher

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, one engineer’s refusal to stay silent helped turn the tide against fraud

Andrew Braum. Photo: John Emerson

By Mark Norris

“What really hit home for me and my children was when we went down to South Merrick and there were boats all over the place—in the middle of the street and on peoples’ lawns. ”
Andrew Braum, BSME ’94

In the weeks after Hurricane Sandy struck Long Island in October 2012, engineers were called upon to assess the structural damage to thousands of homes along the South Shore. The reports they filed were to eventually form the basis of insurance payouts to homeowners, as is typically the case after a natural disaster.

But the story of Andrew Braum (BSME ’94), an engineer who lives on the South Shore, is anything but typical. About a year after the storm hit, the third-party firm that had hired Braum to complete damage inspections of homes asked him to sign off on the 200-plus reports he had submitted. He insisted on reading them first—and that’s when he discovered that most of his reports had been altered in the insurance company’s favor.

Under pressure to sign anyway, Braum went public instead and eventually became the centerpiece of a “60 Minutes” exposé that would ultimately lead to allegations of wide-scale fraud involving numerous insurance companies, their contract engineering firms and FEMA itself.

Was your first reaction to Sandy personal or professional?

It was personal. The day after the storm, we woke up and there was no power. We lost a tree, but we live far enough from the water that we weren’t affected by flood. What really hit home for me and my children was when we went down to South Merrick and there were boats all over the place—in the middle of the street and on peoples’ lawns. It was around Halloween, so we gathered candy and clothing from people on our block, went down to the fire department, which had become a shelter, and put little packages for the kids on their cots.

At what point did your involvement become professional?

Within two weeks, I was contacted by a third-party engineering firm to inspect homes and write reports. I went to more than 200 homes and basically worked from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.

When did you realize your reports had been altered?

The work had petered out by March [2013]. All of a sudden, in September or October, I was contacted by the engineering firm that had hired me. They asked me to sign a document that said I had read all of my final reports and that they were my final reports. I said, “I can’t do that. I need to read them all.” There were something like 16,000 pages that I had to compare from one to the other.

Were you concerned about going public with what you discovered?

I didn’t second-guess it at all. I hadn’t authorized any changes. I had made amendments, supplemental reports—I’m entitled to do that—but I couldn’t just change a report. After I refused to sign the documents, I never heard from that company again.

How have things changed for you after “60 Minutes”?

After the piece aired, FEMA allowed 142,000 Sandy claims to be reopened—a process that is still ongoing. I’m involved in many different capacities—working directly with homeowners or with their law firms, doing pro bono work with disaster clinics. In the past week, I was involved in two cases where I represented the homeowner; I was on the phone with FEMA discussing the differences in my findings versus their engineer’s findings, and trying to get the homeowners the money they deserved. A lot of homeowners are not aware of their rights, they’re afraid of losing money, or they just don’t want to deal with it anymore.

Where do you plan to go from here?

I’m working with different parts of the government now to become an adviser, writing reports and documents that will shed some light on things I’ve found on the front lines. I plan to do more public speaking and creating public awareness about the importance of engineering ethics in relation to natural disasters.