Even the most skeptical New Yorker would have had a hard time not being impressed by Zadroga Act Special Master Sheila Birnbaum at a Town Hall Meeting  sponsored by the FealGood Foundation in New York City last week.  She had just the right touch for an assembled audience of 9/11 victims with serious and/or disabling health problems.

As a life-time New Yorker from the Bronx, she immediately connected with the over-flowing crowd. In a very straight forward manner she described her role as Special Master of the Fund and the potential limitations of the new Zadroga Act (more claimants than the first Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) and less money this time around).   In addition, only $875 million can be distributed to claimants in the first five years of the Fund, with the remaining almost $2 billion to be distributed in the sixth year. Therefore, all individual financial awards are likely to be split into two “chunks”, with the largest chunk coming in the sixth year.

Finally, Ms. Birnbaum directly addressed the difficult issue of whether there was enough total money ($2.8 billion) in the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to fully compensate all claimants at similar levels as the first Victim Compensation Fund.  It seems that she does not believe there is enough money at this time and that full awards will need to be pro-rated (that’s where fine organizations like the FealGood Foundation will come in to lobby Congress for any needed additional funds).

Ms. Birnbaum deftly handled all the audience questions. She looked claimants in the eye and did not over-promise.  She explained difficult concepts of damages in plain language, while always assuring the claimants that the process would be fair and transparent.  She was part therapist, part skilled litigator, part hometown hero and most of all – a friend and advocate for  victims.  No wonder her remarks were met with applause throughout the evening.  As I commented in my live Twitter Feed that evening, she “wowed” them.

We wish Ms. Birnbaum the best of luck in her challenging new assignment. From what we saw at the meeting last week, 9/11 victims have a true friend in Ms. Birnbaum.