FEMA's answer for NY storm victims: Put 'em back in their homes

Story highlights

  • Program creates package of fixes to get people back into their homes
  • More than 17,000 households remain without power across New York
  • That doesn't include more than 30,000 who "are unable to safely receive power"
  • Rental vacancies across New York City are less than 5%. Hotels are already packed

In the aftermath of one of the worst weather systems to hit the Northeast, finding adequate shelter is the big concern.

What to do with displaced residents, whose homes were rendered dark, cold and powerless by Superstorm Sandy, is now the question plaguing emergency management officials across the Tri-State area.

FEMA's answer for New York: Fix up the homes as best they can and put people back in them.

Faced with a lack of physical space for FEMA trailers and limited access to available rental apartments and hotels, FEMA officials in New York said they are bent on making flood-soaked homes inhabitable as winter weather moves in.

Jersey City takes 1-2 punch

"New York is a unique housing environment," said Michael Byrne, federal coordinating officer for FEMA, on Wednesday. "We had to come up with something."

The agency's typical approach to disaster relief, such as the widespread use of emergency trailers for displaced residents and long-term rental assistance, doesn't work as well in the Big Apple.

Rental housing vacancies across New York City are less than 5%, while holiday season hotel rooms are packed with tourists and travelers, leaving few options for those in need of shelter, authorities said.

Rep. Israel: LIPA failures 'outrageous'
Rep. Israel: LIPA failures 'outrageous'


    Rep. Israel: LIPA failures 'outrageous'


Rep. Israel: LIPA failures 'outrageous' 01:29
Anger two weeks after Sandy
Anger two weeks after Sandy


    Anger two weeks after Sandy


Anger two weeks after Sandy 03:36
Sandy leaves Far Rockaway in cold, dark
Sandy leaves Far Rockaway in cold, dark


    Sandy leaves Far Rockaway in cold, dark


Sandy leaves Far Rockaway in cold, dark 02:16

Adding to the dilemma, crowding persists in the city's public housing units, where more than 160,000 families were on the waiting list before the storm.

Can Christie capitalize politically on Sandy?

Officials are expected to focus on getting power restored in places where the sheer extent of the electrical damage has made utility companies cautious about reconnecting homes to the power grid.

They will also implement structural repairs to make the homes adequate shelters for incoming winter weather. Repairs could include tarps, plastic and plywood.

Map: See images of destruction, recovery across the East Coast

FEMA is putting forth "an essential package of necessary fixes so that people can get back into their homes," said Byrne. "This is not a complete repair."

More than 17,000 households remain without power across New York. That does not include more than 30,000 customers who "are unable to safely receive power without customer repairs," according to the Long Island Power Authority.

Long Island residents sue utility

In hard-hit places like the Rockaways and Staten Island, where residents have often clung to their damp homes instead of evacuating, officials said the new program will better cater to the stark realities of the crisis.

"Our home is not that destroyed. We don't have no heat (and) it's very cold in the apartment," said Margaret Alvarez, a 41-year-old resident of Far Rockaway, Queens.

"We just need heat, water and electricity."

Residents like Alvarez, whose homes are damaged but not destroyed, are likely FEMA's target customers.

But reservations about safety persist.

Opinion: Don't rebuild

"My house shifted about 5 inches," said Joanne McClenin, 55, a New Dorp resident of Staten Island. "We don't know if the quick repair ... is going to be safe enough."

A thicket of downed houses and washed-out roads lines several blocks in the New Dorp area after a torrent of wind and water swept across the coastal neighborhood on October 29.

"I don't know how minor repairs get you back in your home," she said.

Sandy amplifies struggles for low-income families

Others seemed somewhat encouraged by the federal plan.

"There are a lot of people that don't have their own contractors, so it's a good program for those people," said Dawn Nasella, a 41-year-old resident of Staten Island, whose rental property was destroyed in the storm.

But the program is not meant to address the needs of those made homeless. That displaced population has mostly inhabited hundreds of city shelters, holed up with friends and family members or taken to living in more perilous places, like their cars.

Costs of Sandy in the billions

Meanwhile, signs of normalcy continued to surface across the Tri-State area.

But those still in the dark require inspectors to go door-to-door to check individual electrical panels to avoid further damage and potential electrical fires, raising the possibility of a long and cold winter for those still without proper shelter.

How to help

      Superstorm Sandy

    • The storm that broke records, and hearts

      A mother learns that her newborn is part of a hospital evacuation. Facebook posts from a member of the HMS Bounty turn ominous. A man worries about the wind and rain, but another force of nature hits home.
    • In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, a storm that ripped so much apart, people have come together to provide help and hope.

      In Sandy's wake, help comes in unexpected ways

      Tourists become volunteer rescue workers. The connected provide power outlets and Wi-Fi. Performers lift spirits. Photographers preserve images. Doctors work overtime to keep hospitals running and patients alive.
    • Despite a mangled phone screen, volunteer Candice Osborne is able to quickly respond to the needs of Superstorm Sandy victims with the help of social media.

      Social media make helping personal

      It has been in operation only since October 30, but the Facebook page for "Giving back to those affected by Sandy" has a longer timeline than most Facebook members.
    • Steph Goralnick

      Let's not forget Superstorm Sandy's victims

      It's important to remember that even as the effect of Superstorm Sandy recedes from the news, there are still devastated areas that are without electricity, heat or hot water.
    • Americares volunteers help clean out flood damaged homes in Queens, New York during Operation "Muck-Out"

      Volunteers help Sandy victims start over

      Our AmeriCares "Operation Muck-Out" team immediately got to work, ripping out the interior walls and removing the insulation until only wooden beams were standing.
    • exp point harlow murray sandy_00013211

      Trying to keep the family business afloat

      Ashley Murray became the first female president of Liberty Industrial Gases and Welding Supplies Inc. in Brooklyn. But now the family history Murray was charged with preserving is at risk of ending after Superstorm Sandy.
    • Jeannette Van Houten and other residents of Union Beach, New Jersey, have found family photos such as this one scattered after Superstorms Sandy. They want to return them to their rightful owners.

      Finding joy among the wreckage

      The adage says "a picture is worth a thousand words," but when Leeann Lewandowski happened upon a photograph of her late mother on Facebook after her home was destroyed in Superstorm Sandy, she was speechless.