November 6, 2012

In Sandy's aftermath, housing puzzle still missing many pieces

Officials continue to seek a workable plan for sheltering thousands of displaced city dwellers.

By Jennifer Peltz and Meghan Barr, The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Government leaders are turning their attention to the next crisis unfolding in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy: finding housing for potentially tens of thousands of people left homeless.

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A vehicle sits embedded in a badly damaged home along the beach in the Belle Harbor section of the New York City borough of Queens on Monday in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Tens of thousands of people without power along the ravaged Atlantic coastline faced the prospect of finding somewhere else to stay.

The Associated Press

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Ariel Nadelberg of Brooklyn pours hot soup in a cup at a parking lot that has become makeshift place for residents to get food and clothing in a Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., on Monday. Many volunteers have shown up on their own to try to lend a hand any way they can.

The Associated Press

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has already dispensed close to $200 million in emergency housing assistance and has put 34,000 people in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area up in hotels and motels.

But local, state and federal officials have yet to lay out a specific, comprehensive plan for finding them long-term places to live, even as cold weather sets in. And given the scarcity and high cost of housing in the metropolitan area and the lack of open space, it could prove a monumental undertaking.

For example, can enough vacant apartments be found? Will the task involve huge, Hurricane Katrina-style encampments of trailer homes? And if so, where will authorities put the trailers? In stadiums? Parks?

Authorities cannot answers those questions yet.

"It's not going to be a simple task. It's going to be one of the most complicated and long-term recovery efforts in U.S. history," said Mark Merritt, president of Witt Associates, a Washington crisis management consulting firm founded by former FEMA director James Lee Witt.

Tactics that FEMA used in other disasters could be difficult to apply in the city. For example, Merritt said, it's impossible to set up trailers in people's driveways if everyone lives in an apartment building, and it's harder to find space to set up mobile homes.

Sandy killed more than 100 people in 10 states but vented the worst of its fury on New Jersey and New York. A week after the storm slammed the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, 1.4 million homes and businesses remained in the dark.

Another storm -- a nor'easter packing heavy rain and gusts of 50 to 60 mph -- was headed for the metropolitan area Wednesday, threatening more flooding and power outages that could undo some of the repairs made in the past few days.

With the temperatures dropping into the 30s overnight, people in dark, unheated homes were urged to go to overnight shelters or daytime warming centers.

Because so many voters have been displaced by the storm, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order allowing people to vote in Tuesday's statewide and presidential elections at any polling place in the state. New Jersey had already taken similar measures.

"Just because you are displaced doesn't mean you are disenfranchised," Cuomo said. "Compared to what we have had to deal with in the past week, this will be a walk in the park when it comes to voting."

As for long-term housing for the homeless, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday that the government is looking into using everything from hotels and motels to FEMA trailers and prefab homes.

"Given the extent of need, no option is off the table," she said. "All of them will have some place in this puzzle."

Napolitano said the government's first priority is getting people to a warm place where they can eat a hot meal. Beyond that, the government wants to find housing as close to people's homes as possible.

"Whether we'll be able to accomplish that, I couldn't say," she said. "We're just now getting a handle on housing."

Officials have yet to even establish the magnitude of the problem.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday that officials are going door-to-door in hard-hit areas to assess the need for shelter. He said the worst-case estimate is 40,000 people, half of them in public housing.

But he said as many as 20,000 will probably get their heat and power back within a few days. Ultimately, the number of people who need housing could be under 10,000, he said.

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