Feds and states tackle housing homeless victims of Sandy

Limited space poses headache for NYC

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

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has already dispensed close to $200 million in emergency housing assistance and has put up 34,000 people in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area 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. Given the scarcity and high cost of metropolitan-area housing and the lack of open space, it could be a monumental undertaking.

For example, can enough vacant apartments be found? Will the task involve huge, Katrina-style trailer home encampments? 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, Mr. 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 Northeast, 1.4 million homes and businesses remained in the dark.

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

As for long-term housing for the homeless, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday that the federal 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. All of them will have some place in this puzzle," she said.

Ms. 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.

Officials have yet to even establish the problem's magnitude.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday that officials are going door-to-door in hard-hit areas to assess shelter needs. He said the worst-case estimate is 40,000 people, half 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 who need housing could be under 10,000, he said.

In New Jersey, state officials said they're still trying to learn how many people will need long-term housing. At least 4,000 residents were in state shelters.

In the meantime, Mr. Bloomberg appointed Brad Gair, an emergency management specialist, as chief of housing recovery operations, with responsibility for overseeing the city's efforts to find shelter for those left homeless by the storm.

Mr. Cuomo said solving a statewide problem that extends from city to suburb is "going to be a community-by-community option." Some local governments may want trailers, but others may try motels or apartment rentals.

In New York City's Staten Island borough, blue-jacketed FEMA volunteers knocked on doors in a devastated neighborhood, making sure that everyone was registered to apply for aid.

Amin and Rachael Alhadad and their four children have been sleeping sitting up in their Jeep. They were supposed to meet finally with FEMA workers Monday afternoon. "We're homeless right now, and it just keeps getting worse every day," Amin Alhadad said. "We can't shower, we can't use the bathroom, we can't sleep properly. We're struggling right now. I'm losing my job right now due to this."

Mr. Alhadad said FEMA told him that the government would deposit $2,900 in his account for a hotel, but it has yet to show up. He planned to make some phone calls to see if there were any hotel rooms available. His kids do not want to go to a shelter. "I'm all out of ideas. I'm dazed and confused," he said.

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