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After Sandy, a housing nightmare looms in New York region

Rockaway residents warm up by a fire in near-freezing weather Saturday in the Queens borough of New York City.

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Rockaway residents warm up by a fire in near-freezing weather Saturday in the Queens borough of New York City.

NEW YORK — New York City officials said 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.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the 40,000 figure was a worst-case scenario given by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a more realistic assessment was 20,000 people — the bulk of which would be public housing residents. Even in the best-case scenario, he said, the task will be formidable.

"We don't have a lot of empty housing in this city," Bloomberg said at a news conference. "We are not going to let anybody go sleeping in the streets or go without blankets, but it's a challenge."

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 FEMA, said most displaced people would likely be housed in hotels or apartments. But for some in regions like Long Island, with its many single-family homes, he said there was a shortage of vacant housing.

"It has got to make sense for the neighborhood," he 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."

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.

But 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 about 1.7 million, the Energy Department said; that included more than 900,000 in New Jersey. 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 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, water-logged houses and survive on food handouts from federal agencies and the National Guard.

About 182,000 residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut had applied for disaster assistance, and $158 million had been approved, Fugate said.

It is still uncertain how many people will need housing. In New Jersey alone, more than 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 alongside Gov. Chris Christie. "We don't even know yet which houses are reparable."

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.

After Sandy, a housing nightmare looms in New York region 11/04/12 [Last modified: Sunday, November 4, 2012 11:07pm]
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