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Next Challenge: Housing Sandy's Victims

With tens of thousands of people potentially facing homelessness and in need of long term shelter, Mayor Michael Bloomberg Monday appointed a former federal disaster coordinator to oversee the city's efforts to provide them with replacement housing. The new director, Brad Gair, is also a former deputy commissioner for the city's Office of Emergency Management. 

On Sunday, the mayor said as many as 40 thousand people might need long term shelter.  A day later, however, Bloomberg, revised those numbers downward.

"I don't think we have a good number. It could be 10,000 it could be 5,000," Bloomberg said when asked for an estimate. "I don't want to just give you a number."

The mayor said public housing residents would likely get their housing back this week. As for the others, the mayor said the city would go door to door to see whose homes may be damaged beyond repair.

Twenty-six-year-old Eric Johnson and his wife Lina could be among the long-term displaced. They are currently staying at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. They said they walked there during the height of the storm after water filled their basement apartment in Coney Island. 

"Everything is gone, everything," Johnson said. "The landlord is gone. There's nothing we can do about it."

The couple said they were renting the apartment and have no family or friends to take them in. They are hoping to receive help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At a news conference Monday, Gair, the city's new director of housing recovery operations, said his first priority would be to quantify the demand for new housing before working on solutions. He said the federal government may help by providing hotel rooms, or cash for people to find their own temporary lodging.

NY, NJ Investigate Price Gouging in Sandy's Aftermath

Officials in New York and New Jersey are investigating whether merchants have been artificially inflating prices to take advantage of customers in the aftermath of Sandy.

"Investigators are going out and they're trying to assess where there's price gouging and where there are folks just passing along increases in wholesale prices," said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in an interview.

His office has received more than 500 complaints of alleged price gouging at gas stations, bodegas and other businesses.

In New Jersey, the Division of Consumer Affairs has received upwards of 1,200 complaints — 85 to 90 percent of them for the state's gas stations where lines have stretched as far as a mile and a half long.

"The overwhelming majority are related to gas station issues," said Eric Kanetsky, acting director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. "They were particularly bad in the days immediately following the storm."

The NJDCA has already issued more than 100 subpoenas.

But proving these types of cases has been difficult. After Hurricane Katrina, a study from the Federal Trade Commission found that most cases of alleged price gouging following the storm were not legitimate.

NYU Starts Seeing Some Patients, but Bulk of Hospital Remains Closed

New York University Langone Medical Center reopened many of its outpatient offices, and the 600 students in the medical school went back to classes – but it’s still not clear when the hospital will open its emergency room, surgical suites and labor and delivery ward.

A spokeswoman says an outside engineering expert is assessing the damage from last week’s storm that led to the dramatic evacuation of patients while winds were still blowing strong.

“We don’t want to promise we’ll open by a certain day and then not deliver,” said Lisa Greiner, the director of public relations.

Greiner said a preliminary assessment by an in-house team determined that it was the 15-foot-deep flood waters that led to the evacuation, not a power failure. She also said that the backup generators shut off briefly, but did not failed.

Damage occurred only in the basement, including the pits below the elevators, Greiner said, but did not affect patient treatment areas or sensitive equipment.

The hospital plans to build new flood barriers and a seven-story power generation plant which will provide the hospital with a largely independent source of electricity.

Cuomo to Allow Affidavit Ballots for Sandy Victims

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has agreed to issue an executive order that will allow displaced voters to cast ballots by affidavit at any polling site they can reach Tuesday.

The order will permit voters to sign affidavits that they're legally registered to vote in the presidential and state races and cast ballots at any open polling site, even those outside their neighborhoods.

But they won't be able to vote for state legislative candidates unless the polling place is within the proper legislative district.

New Jersey is allowing voters to use provisional ballots at any polling site.

Common Cause-New York and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School urged the action earlier Monday.

Immigrants Benefiting from Deferred Action Keep an Eye on Election

Andres Palacio says the letters he recently got from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services make him feel more like his classmates at Nassau Community College in Garden City, Long Island.

“I won't have to worry about any restrictions,” he said. “I’ll practically be normal.”

Palacio, 19, got his approval for deferred action and two days later a work permit arrived in the mail. He is among the 4,500 people across the country who have been approved for deferred action, according to the latest figures from the Department of Homeland Security. It means he won’t be deported for two years and can work legally as long as he does not commit a serious crime.  Palacio came to the United States from Colombia when he was 8 to join his parents. He's in his third semester and says he thinks his life will be easier from now on.

“I’ll be able to work and help my parents and drive, which is a big deal,” Palacio said.

Palacio’s parents, Janeth, 45 and John, 47, who clean houses, currently pay for his education.  After he gets a driver's license, Palacio plans to find a part-time job to help out with his tuition and living expenses. He’ll get an associate degree in liberal arts next summer, but he hopes to continue studying to become a nurse, nurse practitioner or a physician assistant.

Some experts and advocates, like Jojo Anobil, attorney in charge of the immigration law unit at the Legal Aid Society, say that so far deferred action seems to be working.

 “I think the program has been a success,” Anobil said.

But Anobil says the number of people who have so far applied for deferred action, around 200,000, is a small proportion of the 1.26 million who are estimated to be eligible, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Eighty thousand of those eligible live in New York State.

To qualify for deferred action immigrants must show they arrived in the United States before their 16th birthday, are under the age of 31, and have lived in the U.S. for at least five years. They also need to have a high school diploma or a G.E.D., or currently be in school.  They also must not have been convicted of a serious crime.

Anobil says there are a few reasons those who are eligible haven't applied. For some the required $465 fee is hard to come up with. Some fear by coming forward they could end up deported. And one group is watching “ to see what happens with the elections on November 6th,” Anobil said.

The question of what happens after the elections also lingered in the air at the cafeteria at Nassau Community College. Palacio was joined by his friend Oscar Lopez, 19. He came eight years ago from El Salvador. Lopez has also applied for deferred action and he’s waiting to hear back.

”I feel positive I’m gonna get it,” he said.

Lopez is optimistic not only about getting a work permit but also about being able to renew it when it expires in two years. Palacio, however, said he is worried what could happen with the program if Mitt Romney wins.

“I heard he’s not going to continue deferred action,” Palacio said, referring to Governor Romney.

Romney has said he would honor already issued work permits, but would replace deferred action with a more permanent solution. He plans to allow those who were brought here as children and who serve in the military to get green cards. But it's unclear what would happen with others who qualify for deferred action.

U.S. Presses Fractured Syrian Opposition To Unite

Could a united Syrian opposition be the game changer that finally topples President Bashar Assad, after almost 20 months of revolt and more than 30,000 dead?

"You need a game changer, either military or political, and hope it will break the stalemate," says Amr Azm, a Syrian-born professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

The Obama administration appears to embrace this view, and last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the surprise announcement that the U.S. backed a plan to overhaul the Syrian opposition.

Hundreds of Syrian dissidents began five days of intense talks Sunday in Doha, Qatar. Clinton added urgency by also withdrawing support for the Syrian National Council, the exile-led group that has claimed to represent Syria's revolution for more than a year.

The SNC is widely seen as dysfunctional and has lost legitimacy with young activists as well as front-line militias. The group also has failed to convince Syria's minorities that it is a credible political alternative to Assad, who has ruled the country for 12 years, succeeding his father, who was in power for three decades.

A Rough Beginning

The so-called makeover meeting in Qatar got off to a rocky start Sunday as U.S. hopes clashed with the reality of fractious opposition politics.

Divisions quickly emerged. SNC leaders complained about a reduced role; Islamists disagreed with secularists; young activists charged that longtime exiles are out of touch. And the goal to build an alternative leadership could be infected with the same "virus" that sunk unity within the SNC, says Randa Slim, with the New America Foundation.

"The demise of the SNC is a result of self-inflicted wounds," says Slim. Syrians are "fed up" with the SNC, she says, but that doesn't make it easier to quickly create a credible alternative. "Their intuitive reaction is mistrust," says Slim, especially with the call for a major overhaul coming from the Americans.

However, the plan for a leadership shake-up came from a widely respected Damascus dissident, Riad Seif. The 66-year-old is a former member of parliament and was also jailed by the government. He comes from the Sunni business class.

Slim says he has broad-based connections and "brings to the table leadership skills and credibility."

Seif led a group of 20 opposition figures in Amman, Jordan, ahead of the Qatar talks to hammer out the details of a new leadership group that would consist of about 50 members.

Bringing In Younger Activists

Called the Syrian National Initiative, the council would include many young activists who have played an important role on the ground in Syria's revolt. The new body would then choose a 10-member executive council as early as this week.

"The goal is to appoint a group of technocrats as a transitional government," says Amr Azm, which could set the stage for support from the Arab League and international recognition.

In Qatar, Seif dismissed speculation that he would lead a transitional government. He's been diagnosed with prostate cancer and told Agence France-Presse in an interview, "I am 66 and have health problems."

He said an alternative government to Assad's regime is "dearly needed," to secure more foreign aid and international support.

Seif, a longtime opponent of the Assad regime, joined peaceful street protests in the capital, Damascus, early in the revolt that began in March 2011. He was beaten and arrested in the capital with hundreds of young activists.

"He realizes that the young people are dominant," says Andrew Tabler, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He's an inside guy who has street cred."

Tabler believes that activists from the provincial and revolutionary councils in Syria should have been given leadership positions a long time ago. Tabler also cautions that opposition politics are splintered in Syria, and that won't change anytime soon.

For the Obama administration, shifting the generational power balance appears to be one selling point for a new opposition leadership. In addition, there are the changes that have taken place on the ground. This summer, rebel militias seized control of large areas across northern Syria.

Training The Opposition

The U.S. has been giving nonlethal aid to the opposition, including training programs conducted in Istanbul and in southern Turkey, a $6 million program geared toward activists coming out of Syria.

The first group included 36 activists, members of revolutionary councils from the northern province of Aleppo. Later groups came from Idlib, in the northwest; and Deir el Zour, a rebel-held area near the Iraqi border.

The intense course work focused on helping the Syrian opposition set up administrations in towns and villages. For the first time, U.S. officials met face to face with young activists creating grass-roots representative bodies that provide humanitarian services and a fledgling judiciary.

The French government has gone even further by directly distributing cash to revolutionary councils under rebel control.

"There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," Clinton said. "And we also need an opposition that will be on the record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution."

However, those doing the fighting and the dying are the rebel militias, but they have not been invited to the Qatar meeting.

"That's an important thing that's missing," says Tabler. "The big problem in this is not engaging armed groups directly. Those taking the shots will be calling the shots, at least in the interim."

But the Obama administration has become increasingly concerned about the radicalization of the militias. The U.S.-backed political initiative is an attempt to empower secular civilians who would have stronger links with commanders on the ground.

Over the past 20 months, the Syrian revolt has become a grinding military contest. Militia leaders concede that radicals, including some who share the ideology of al-Qaida, are well-trained and well-armed by a network of private funders, and are crucial to the rebels' campaign.

"Until the opposition can hold a major city, they can't create an alternative Syria," says Joe Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

Public Housing Residents Still in Despair After Sandy

Large parts of the East Village appear to be back to normal with cafes open and young people back on the streets.  But at a public housing development on Avenue C, the desperation was palpable.

About 700 people live at Campos Plaza I, a tattered public housing development at the edge of the East Village. After Sandy, residents said floodwater filled the lobby of some of the buildings, reaching the raised first floor.  Ruhith Ahmad lives on the first floor with his mom. The two have electricity and gas. But no heat or hot water. The 13-year-old said his family has been boiling water to keep warm.

"We have little Poland Spring water bottles and we're filling them up with hot water and then we just put them in our blankets and stuff so we just surround ourselves with it," Ahmed said.  "It doesn't help that much but it's better than nothing."

At another building nearby volunteers with the group Good Old Lower East Side climbed up dark stairwells carrying bags of food. On the 17th floor they encountered Angelina Solano. The 71-year-old had just lugged up 4 gallons of water and was out of breath. She could barely speak.

"I no got water. No steam. I'm a sick person. I got problems," she said through tears. "My daughter she is not healthy. My husband is sick, too. This is terrible."

Solano explained the water was from a fire hydrant that someone had pried open. Her family was rationing it and didn't want to use the water to flush the toilets so now they said the bowl was full of excrement, which was stinking up the apartment.

On the 12th floor, 87-year-old Prudis Ortega hadn't left her apartment since the storm. "I've been very depressed and very scared," she said in Spanish.

The frail, white haired woman said her apartment was freezing. She answered the door wearing a ski cap. After the storm, she said the lights went out and she feared she had been left in the building alone. It’s a thought that still haunts her.

Because of osteoporosis, she said there's no way she can make it down the stairs. Several residents said they were too weak to leave.  

A spokesman for the utility, Con Edison, said the problem is that many buildings along Avenue C still have not been pumped out. That job, they said is the building owner’s responsibility. In this case, that means The New York City Housing Authority. NYCHA said thousands of employees were working to get developments up and running.  

Currently, 108 buildings at 17 developments remain without power. The authority said it's too early to tell where long-term outages may exist.

Micropolis: Mormons in the City

Lisa Higbee loves President Obama. She loves Mitt Romney too — so much so that she composed a song that she played for me in her Inwood apartment.

“Mister Romney! Mister Romney!/ You can help your country with your brave and generous ways,” she sang.

Higbee, a speech pathologist, is one of around 42,000 Mormons who live in New York City. And not all members of her faith share the same excitement about the GOP challenger.

“There are a lot of us, especially in New York, that are ready for the election to be over,” said Kristina Petersen, a biochemist who’ll be voting for Obama, “because it’s caused a lot of conflict just within members of the church.”

Despite his political leanings, Petersen said she thinks Romney's candidacy has helped demystify Mormonism for many. "I think at first the Mormon thing was a deal breaker," she explained. "People were like, 'They believe in a prophet — what is this?'"

Emily Kunz, a conservative, said it was “discouraging” to watch her faith “be called a cult, or to be ridiculed” during the Republican primary. Although she will vote for Romney in part because he’s a Mormon, she also embraces his politics.

Even Mormons who don’t plan to vote for Romney speak to his intrinsically Mormon appeal.

“He's a very successful, good-looking, well spoken Mormon,” said Lachelle Francis, 27. “And not that that's hard to find. I find that by and large, Mormons tend to be that — all of those things. But he's such a good representation of what it is to be Mormon.”

Francis is gay, and stopped attending services after the Church of Latter Day Saints declared its opposition to same-sex marriage. The church stated, through a spokesman, that it doesn’t endorse political parties or candidates.

For Mormons like Alexander Struk, the fear is that their faith would be singled out if Romney becomes president.

“I just hope that if he is elected, and he does enact an agenda that large parts of the country will probably find unappealing or unpopular, that's not conflated with his religious beliefs.”

For more visit  Micropolis: NYC.

School Closings in NY, NJ and CT

In New York City, all but 65 schools will be open on Monday. Mayor Bloomberg advised parents that even schools with electricity may lack heat and recommended that students dress accordingly. For updates on the status of individual schools, visit the DOE website.

For information on school closings throughout the area, use the following links:

Insurance Companies Rethink Business After Sandy

Superstorm Sandy capped what's been a pretty impressive couple of years for U.S. natural disasters. There have been wildfires, tornadoes, floods and derechos. And insurance companies are on the hook to pay billions in related claims.

"We're seeing more of everything, and what we're doing is trying to factor that in going forward as we work with others to have a better sense of what the future holds," says State Farm spokesman David Beigie.

Here is one thing the industry agrees is true: The cost from hurricane damages is increasing. That's largely because population density and the cost of coastal property increases every year.

Do insurers expect to see more frequent and more intense weather events in coming years? Opinions diverge.

Peter Hoppe heads the Geo Risks Research center for Munich Re, a global company that insures other insurers. His company put out a report just before Sandy warning that North America will face a rising number of natural catastrophes due in part to greenhouse gas emissions.

"We believe that climate change is a big problem and will drive losses in the future," Hoppe says.

He says there is no evidence climate change caused Hurricane Sandy. But, he says, it doesn't matter whether insurers believe in man-made climate change. His report says the number of weather-related events nearly quintupled in North America over the past three decades. And that means premiums will increase in the long run if exposure continues to increase.

"On the long term, definitely we have an interest in what will be happening in 50 years, or even in 100 years because this concerns our business model in general. It may be that in the long term, things become uninsurable," Hoppe says.

But this is not a view embraced by the whole industry.

"Are we really seeing more storms, or are we just recording more storms? That's the big question," says longtime expert Karen Clark, who runs her own risk-management consultancy.

Clark says the problem is that hurricane prediction is a very young science. She notes that records documenting hurricanes go back only about a century, a data set far too small to draw big conclusions.

She says after Hurricane Katrina — the most expensive of all documented storms — some predicted a warming cycle would produce more powerful storms. That forecast did not bear out.

"It just shows you that we just are not that smart, you know, when it comes to what's really going on," Clark says.

Bill Keogh, president of Eqecat, one of the major risk-modeling firms in the U.S., says that despite what it may seem, we are now in a statistically low period of hurricane activity. After Katrina, few powerful hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S.

That is not to say Sandy won't change the way insurance companies assess their weather risks.

"Risk models change all the time, and they change when we have new information," Keogh says.

That's especially true when that information is unusual. And Sandy was unusual because it hit the Northeast, as few hurricanes do, and because it veered inland, instead of toward the ocean. That information from Sandy, Keogh says, will shape views about the probability of future risks. But probability is not the same as a crystal-ball prediction.

"Everybody wants to know: 'Tell me the answer. You know, over the next five years, how many hurricanes will we have, what will they look like, how will much they cost. And when will the occur?' We don't do that," Keogh says.

The only thing we can do, insurers say, is build our buildings safer, and better prepare for what will eventually come.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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