Sandy Victims Struggle To Find Temporary Housing

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has hired a former FEMA official with Hurricane Katrina experience to direct the city's housing recovery, following Superstorm Sandy. It's another sign of the seriousness of the housing shortage caused by the storm.

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New York's Mayor Bloomberg has hired a former FEMA official with experience in Hurricane Katrina to direct the city's housing recovery. NPR's Martin Kaste reports it's another sign of the seriousness of the housing shortage caused by the storm.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: There are no hard numbers on how many people have been displaced in New York and New Jersey. But you do get a sense of the scale by looking at what the department of housing and urban development has undertaken so far. It's already approved $95 million to help pay the rent for 32,000 applicants. And HUD secretary Shaun Donovan says there's also money going for hotel rooms.

SHAUN DONOVAN: The short term lodging that can be used in participating hotels. In New York and New Jersey we have 34,000 applicants determined eligible already.

KASTE: But the key word there is participating hotels. At an improvised shelter in a gym at Hillcrest High School in Queens, Janet Nieves shows the list of hotels that FEMA gave her.

JANET NIEVES: We just called them and some of them don't even take you. Some of them say we have to pay cash.

KASTE: The list is just a screen dump of local hotels printed from Expedia. When Nieves and others at this shelter call the numbers, they often find themselves connected to the hotel's national reservation systems where there is little confidence in FEMA's pledge to pay their hotel bills. She says it might be easier if the system weren't so virtual.

NIEVES: The hotels want to know if we got the vouchers on us to give to them when we get there. But no, we don't have none of that.

KASTE: Still, it's not clear that a piece of paper would make a difference for Nieves, her husband, her four kids, and the three dogs. Even if they could pay up front, it's hard to find a place that would put them up the way they want in one big room. There are also a lot of people who are staying in their homes despite adverse conditions. In New York's Far Rockaway, recovery crews are still pumping mud out of the basement of a 24-story apartment building.

It's right on the beach and residents had a front row seat for the storm. Now they're still waiting for power and heat. Melanie Waters shows the way up the pitch black stairwell with a flashlight.

MELANIE WATERS: You've just got to go right through to that door, if you can see it. Ooh, this is where I've been hauling the water up. I'll show you what it's like here.

KASTE: The hallways are frigid. Nighttime temperatures are now in the 30s, but Waters' neat apartment is relatively warm. It's a humid warmth. She points at the gas stove.

WATERS: I burn the burners, all four. I take a pot of water and leave it right here and let the steam do it. And I leave it real low overnight. That's why it's so warm. This is from all night.

KASTE: She says she's considered taking the trip inland to a shelter like the one in the high school, but so far she hasn't thought it worthwhile to trade her own bed for a cot in a gymnasium. Waters hadn't heard that FEMA might pay for up to two weeks in a hotel room. Back outside, her neighbor, Ronnie LaCouer, and his developmentally disabled son John, are getting some air by the pumps.

Ronnie says he hadn't heard of the hotel offer either and he would definitely consider it.

RONNIE LACOUER: A hotel would be perfect because I can shower, I can watch, like I said, I have a mentally challenged boy. He loves church and he loves the TV. And every night when it's dark, he don't understand it.

KASTE: And just then a van pulls up and unloads a couple of dozen young AmeriCorps workers in matching jackets, and they fan out into the neighborhood. They're here to tell residents about shelter options as well as loans and grants for people whose homes have been damaged or destroyed, people for whom recovery will require a lot more than just a two-week stay in a government-funded hotel room. Martin Kaste, NPR News, New York.

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