Housing Nightmare Looms in Wake of Hurricane Sandy
- By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ - The New York Times - November 4, 2012
New York City officials said on Sunday that they faced the daunting challenge of finding homes for as many as 40,000 people who were left homeless after the devastation of last week’s storm, a situation that the city’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, compared to New Orleans’s after Hurricane Katrina.
The mayor said that the 40,000 figure was the worst possible case given by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and that a more realistic assessment was 20,000 people — most of them residents of public housing. Even in the best possible case, he said, the task will be formidable.
“We don’t have a lot of empty housing in this city,” Mr. Bloomberg said at a news conference on Sunday. “We are not going to let anybody go sleeping in the streets or go without blankets, but it’s a challenge, and we’re working on that as fast as we can.”
It is a task shared throughout the region, as officials in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut struggle to meet the demands of those whose homes have been left uninhabitable. In some cases, the solution may be a familiar, if unwelcome sight: the trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina.
Craig Fugate, director of the agency, said most displaced people would probably be housed in hotels or apartments. But in some regions, like Long Island with its many single-family homes and few large apartment blocks, he said there was a shortage of vacant housing.
“It has got to make sense for the neighborhood,” Mr. Fugate said, adding that it was up to the states to request the trailers. “We are going to bring all potential housing solutions and look at what works best for each neighborhood.”
Even as utility companies work to restore power to millions of customers, a northeaster, projected to land midweek, may hit the already battered coastal areas with heavy winds and strong waves that could cause more flooding and tear down power lines recently replaced and stop repair workers in their tracks.
“The first concern is slowing the army that we’ve got down; the second is more outages,” said John Miksad, Consolidated Edison’s senior vice president for electric operations. “It certainly does complicate the restoration.”
A week after Hurricane Sandy tore through the region, millions have regained electricity, mass transit is on the mend, and volunteers have rushed in to help those who are desperate. On Sunday, some runners who had expected to compete in the New York City Marathon, which was canceled, instead pitched in to haul fallen trees and to distribute clothing and food in the city’s most heavily damaged regions. Others ran a modified marathon route in Central Park.
In many regions, power is still lacking and fuel is nowhere to be found. As of Sunday, the number of utility customers without power was over 1.8 million, the Energy Department said; that included more than 900,000 in New Jersey, 280,000 served by the Long Island Power Authority and 198,000 Con Edison customers — nearly half of them in Westchester County. Gas shortages persisted with rationing imposed in New Jersey and lines at some gas stations stretching for miles.
And with recovery times in some areas projected to last not days or weeks, but months, a sense of desperation appeared to have set in. In parts of Staten Island, Long Island and coastal New Jersey, many still reside in dank, waterlogged houses and survive on food handouts from federal agencies and the National Guard.
FEMA announced over the weekend that it would begin providing free hotel rooms for up to two weeks to victims whose homes are not habitable, as authorities try to move people out of emergency shelters. Individuals must register with the agency to get the assistance, which also in some cases can include rental assistance for temporary apartments.
As of 3 p.m. Sunday, 182,000 residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut had applied for disaster assistance, and a total of $158 million has been approved, he said. Some share of that total will need a temporary place to stay.
Word that some may have to leave their homes permanently caused further confusion and fear, particularly in public housing complexes heavily damaged by the storm.
At the Hammel Houses, a public housing complex in the Rockaways, saltwater stains from the storm surge were visible above first-floor windows, which like many in this part of New York City were all dark.
“They tell us we might evacuate,” said Gloria Evans, 47, who has lived at apartment 1B at the houses since she moved there 26 years ago as a new mother.
“Are they going to help us? They can’t just move everyone out and have no place to put them,” she said.
It is still uncertain how many people would ultimately need housing, temporary or otherwise. In New Jersey alone, over 5,000 people remain in shelters and tens of thousands who evacuated their homes now reside with relatives and friends. Those with no homes to return to will have to find a new place to live.
“We lost a lot of housing here in New Jersey,” Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, said in Hoboken with Gov. Chris Christie. “We don’t even know yet which houses are reparable.”
In making his reference to Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bloomberg said that to his recollection the number of displaced people in New York may have been similar to that in New Orleans. That estimation seemed inaccurate since several hundred thousand people were placed in federal housing in the months after that storm.
Officials were scrambling to prepare for the onset of cold weather. New York City has opened heating shelters and is passing out blankets to residents without electricity.
Temperatures throughout the region were expected to fall Sunday evening into the 30s, and the National Weather Service issued a freeze watch for parts of New Jersey, including the coast, the scene of some of the worst damage. Officials have urged residents across the region to head to shelters.
Volunteers were also trying to help. In the narrow streets of Midland Beach, one of the hardest hit areas on Staten Island, they carried hoes, rakes, brooms and shovels as they went door to door offering their labor. Others circled the blocks in pickup trucks full of food, blankets, clothes and cleaning supplies. Impromptu distribution centers, piled high with food and secondhand clothes, sprung up on every other corner.
On Sunday morning, runners dressed in orange marathon gear crowded onto the Staten Island Ferry and headed to the storm-ravaged borough to help. They packed blankets, food, water and flashlights in shoulder bags. Some planned to run to battered areas once the ferry docked.
“There are people suffering on Staten Island, and we’ve got to do something about it,” said Neil Cohen, 42, from Riverdale in the Bronx.
On Sunday, gas lines seemed slightly shorter in some places than in the previous few days, but many stations were still closed. The authorities set up three fuel depots in New Jersey to provide doctors and nurses with up to 15 gallons apiece to allow them to get to work.
The gas crisis in the New York metropolitan area appeared to be easing, according to information released late Sunday by the Energy Department. As of Sunday, only 27 percent of the gas stations in the region reported to be out of fuel, down from 67 percent on Friday.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a news conference that tankers and barges were on the way to ease shortages. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that Port Elizabeth, N.J., reopened on Sunday to receive its first shipments. Other Port Authority seaports remained closed.
“We do believe it is a short-term problem,” Mr. Cuomo said, adding that shortages could continue for several days.
As for the subways, all of the numbered lines were running to some degree, said Joseph J. Lhota, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The No. 1 train has been extended south to 14th Street, and transit officials said they hoped that it would reach Rector Street by Monday. On Sunday evening, Mr. Lhota announced that Q train service had been partially restored to Kings Highway.
The South Ferry station, although the water has been pumped out, remains unusable. The L train from Brooklyn to Manhattan and the G train from Brooklyn to Queens also remain suspended with no estimated time for resuming service.
Mr. Lhota said trains would arrive at stations less often on Monday than on a normal weekday. “It’s an old system,” Mr. Lhota said in televised remarks. “It needs tender loving care, and it just had a major accident.”
Monday morning would also bring another change: the return to school of nearly a million children. About 96 percent of the city’s school buses are expected to be operating, and a vast majority of schools should be open, Mr. Bloomberg said. Students at closed schools will be sent to other locations, though the mayor said that keeping everyone informed about who goes where was proving difficult. The city has made over a million robocalls to parents and has purchased full-page advertisements in Monday’s newspapers with information about scheduling changes.
Mr. Bloomberg also set the stage for possible confusion at polling places during the election on Tuesday. About 143,000 voters in the city will be assigned to polling sites outside their districts, and the mayor expressed hope that the New York Board of Elections, which he has criticized for mismanagement, would be prepared.
Asked whether he thought the board was up to the task, he replied: “I have absolutely no idea.”
Reporting on the storm was contributed by Peter Applebome, Susan Beachy, Joseph Berger, Mac William Bishop, Diane Cardwell, Annie Correal, Steve Eder, Michael M. Grynbaum, Anemona Hartocollis, Raymond Hernandez, Jeff Leibowitz, Randy Leonard, Eric Lipton, Christoper Maag, Angela Macropoulos, Colin Moynihan, Patrick McGeehan, Amy Padnani, Michael Powell, William K. Rashbaum, Wendy Ruderman, Nate Schweber, Julie Turkewitz, Jessica Weisberg, Benjamin Weiser, Michael Wilson, Jenna Wortham and Vivian Yee.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 4, 2012
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the number of customers without power in Connecticut. It is 70,000, not 700,000.