Storm Refugees Struggle To Rebound In Times Square This New Year's Eve, victims of Superstorm Sandy will likely be in Times Square to watch the ball drop. But they may not be there by choice. Their homes were ruined by the storm in October, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has placed thousands in hotels in the area.
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Storm Refugees Struggle To Rebound In Times Square

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Storm Refugees Struggle To Rebound In Times Square

Storm Refugees Struggle To Rebound In Times Square

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. This New Year's Eve, some people made homeless by Hurricane Sandy will be in Times Square. But they won't be watching the ball drop by choice. After their homes were ruined by the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed them in hotels in the area. Cindy Rodriguez of member station WNYC visited one family trying to rebound while living in a tourist hot spot.

CINDY RODRIGUEZ, BYLINE: The DoubleTree Hotel sits on one of the loudest and glitziest corners of Times Square. The musical "Annie" is playing right next door. And across the street, tourists line up for discount tickets to Broadway at the red neon TKTS ticket booth. Down the block, Elmo and the Statue of Liberty pose for pictures with tourists. Nine-year-old Isaiah Douglas has been taking it all in.

ISAIAH DOUGLAS: It has been a great experience.

RODRIGUEZ: He's been staying at the DoubleTree with his mom, dad and little sister. But the family didn't come here to see the sights. Their story emerges in the elevator as a hotel guest innocently asks Isaiah's mom, Natisha, where she's from.

NATISHA LAWS: I'm from here. I'm from New York. We're with FEMA because of the Hurricane Sandy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Did you lose your house?

LAWS: Yeah. We lost everything.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, my God, I'm so sorry.

LAWS: It's okay. You didn't tell the storm to come, so...

RODRIGUEZ: FEMA says about 5,000 displaced households are currently staying in hotels in New York and New Jersey. Inside Laws' hotel room on the 13th floor, cartoons are playing on the TV. There's a small sitting room with a sofa, but no kitchenette. Boxes of cereal sit on a countertop. One frozen dinner is left inside the mini fridge.

By New York City standards, the hotel room is large, but still cramped for a family of four with a toddler. The views are of Manhattan high-rises and a flashing billboard for the musical "Mamma Mia."

MARK DOUGLAS: When we saw this, we couldn't believe it, actually.

RODRIGUEZ: That's Mark Douglas, the kid's dad. But six weeks later, the 26-year-old says reality has set in and the optimism has worn off.

DOUGLAS: Everything around here is really expensive. We can't afford none of the stuff, so basically we go to Walgreens, and we purchase what we could off the food stamps because that's basically the only place around here that will take that.

RODRIGUEZ: Douglas says even before the storm, his young family was struggling. Natisha and the kids moved to Far Rockaway, Queens, to be with him in September. But he lost his job not long after, and then the storm hit, setting them back even more. Their only possessions are a garbage bag of clothes that sits in the corner, a mobile DVD player and a small laptop. Natisha is eight months pregnant, and Douglas is overwhelmed.

DOUGLAS: She's stressed out. She don't know what's going to be the next step, so I try to keep her calm at the same time, the kids calm at the same time, figure out everything that's going, you know, to commence for the duration.

RODRIGUEZ: For 9-year-old Isaiah, keeping calm involves trips to the mega Toys R Us down the street with its gigantic indoor Ferris wheel.

DOUGLAS: It's like you're all interested in the same thing, then you got - and then we all start talking about the prices and stuff, and then we go home, and there's no fighting or anything. Everybody's calm and relaxed and sure isn't running around.

RODRIGUEZ: But Natisha Laws says it doesn't take long for her worries to return. The family has spent nearly all the $4,900 it received from FEMA on food, transportation and replacing clothes. They have no other income coming in. Isaiah's been shuffled from one school to another and has missed a lot of days. FEMA has given all families until January 12 to check out. Laws says the hotel has her leaving even sooner, and she's worried.

LAWS: You never know what's supposed to happen once you leave this beautiful hotel. Like where do you go after that? Do you become part of the shelter system? Do you become part of New York homeless? Or, you know, what comes after FEMA stops helping or Red Cross stops helping?

RODRIGUEZ: Laws sees Sandy receding in the public's mind and is concerned her family will soon be forgotten. For NPR News, I'm Cindy Rodriguez in New York.

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