Since Superstorm Sandy ravaged the New Jersey and New York coastlines last week, FEMA has already put more than 30,000 residents in hotels and motels and given out roughly $300 million in rental assistance.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Friday announced more help for residents: a new program called NYC Rapid Repair for people whose houses were damaged by the storm. The program, paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will cut through bureaucracy and get contractors to many damaged homes starting next week, he said.
Five days ago, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, stood with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and said the government was looking at every housing option. "We don't even know yet which of the houses are reparable and which are irreparable losses," she said. "[The agency is also trying to find] temporary housing for those individuals who can't move back to their homes right away."
Those assessments are ongoing. At least 7,000 people are still in shelters in New York and New Jersey. The Brooklyn Armory in New York City was providing shelter Thursday for about 300 elderly people, many with medical problems. Neat rows of cots filled the room.
Linda O'Conner is one of the 400,000 or so people still in the dark. Three power poles near her house in West Milford, N.J., snapped, leaving her with no heat, no electricity and — since her water is from a well that is pumped with electricity — no water.
"We have been cramped up in a teeny tiny hotel room. We're stressed out; everybody is fighting with each other; we're tripping over our things," she says.
O'Conner's daughter managed to make it to school once it opened. The two dogs are in kennels; the cats are in her basement, being fed every day. The family has spent $2,000 on lodging already, but it's not in a FEMA disaster county, so it can't count on any federal aid. Every day O'Conner looks at the power company's website and sees the number of homes without power go down and down.
"You see all your friends and neighbors and family getting their power back and you feel so left behind," she says.
Bloomberg said 40,000 people in New York might need housing assistance. Half of them are in public housing. Each day more of those buildings are functioning, but as of Thursday there were 120 buildings without heat or hot water, and 72 were still without power.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told reporters the agency was using satellite imagery to see how many homes were impacted by flooding. The trouble is, he said, "that number won't tell us how many have long-term housing needs."
Most of the FEMA assistance money is going for renters' assistance. "It's faster. It puts more money into the economy," Fugate said.
So far FEMA has given $300 million in renters' assistance. FEMA has said 101,000 people are eligible for temporary housing at hotels, and 56,000 people are eligible for help with rentals or repairs. FEMA is also beginning to move some mobile homes into hard-hit areas. These are not trailers like the ones used in Katrina. Those led to class-action lawsuits when some were found to contain toxic levels of formaldehyde.
"We have moved to HUD-approved manufactured housing, and we have looked at those designed for a colder climate [like in the] Northeast, where you do have severe winters," Fugate said.
Bloomberg also announced that Airbnb, an online site for people who want to rent out their homes, will let people use the site to donate free temporary housing for the displaced. According to Airbnb, almost 600 people have already opened their homes.
Bloomberg said some people whose houses have been inundated don't want to leave.
"This is everything they worked for all of their lives, and this is where they want to be," he said.
Jobs, school and fear of looters figure into this calculation, so the city is trying to provide homeowners with security, warm blankets and other assistance as officials all over the region explore their options.