Hurricane Sandy Evacuees Suddenly Left Without a Place to Live Again

It’s been almost a year since Hurricane Sandy struck the U.S. East Coast, causing the deaths of 72 people in eight states, wreaking havoc on the lives of millions and damaging or destroying thousands of homes. Government officials, recognizing how fragile the aging U.S. infrastructure is, have announced plans for better disaster preparation, but there are still plenty of people still living every day with the aftermath of the hurricane.

Among them are Gwendolyn Bethea, and her adult son Gabriel Sanya, as well as Cherell Manuel and her three daughters, including 7-year-old Najh-ja. Since Hurricane Sandy struck in late October of 2012, they are some of the approximately 300 New York City residents who have been living in hotels after their homes were flooded. As of September 30, funding from the federal government has dried up.

Since last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has reimbursed the city of New York $73 million for hotel bills for residents displaced by Sandy and unable to afford the costs. But as of August, FEMA said that the hotel program, which costs $2 million a month, would end. No explanation was offered when the Huffington Post sought further information.

The only option offered to Bethea, Sanya, Manuel and Najh-ha and hundreds of others has been shelters for the homeless. Noting that the city had assisted more than 3,000 individuals affected by the hurricane for over 10 months, City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, the top lawyer for the Bloomberg Administration, said via a September 27 statement, “Interim housing, along with intensive case management services, was provided, but [it] was never intended to be a permanent solution.”

Thanks to an anonymous donor who recently contributed $1 million, Bethea, Sanya, Manuel and many others have been temporarily spared the task of finding a spot in a shelter.

For sure, all are eager to move out of the hotels. Najj-ha’s mother has to take her on a 90-minute commute every day to get her to her second-grade classroom in Far Rockaway, Queens. Like many, the Manuels hav been living amid boxes and garbage bags filled with what belongings they could salvage from their flooded homes.

The anonymous donation was made to New York Disaster Interfaith Services, which is assisting evacuees who have been accepted into a government housing program such as Section 8. As Peter Gudaitis, the disaster group’s director, says, “The goal is to get clients to be self-sufficient.” Bethea and Sanya are hoping to move into an apartment in Far Rockaway with a Section 8 voucher very soon (maybe even this week). Manuel, Najh-ja and Manuel’s two older daughters are also due to move into a Section 8-subsidized three-bedroom apartment in the Rockaways this week.

Under tenants’ rights law, people have the right to remain in their hotel rooms if they have been there for 30 days; it can take months for a hotel to win an eviction order in a housing court. Nonetheless, Bethea and Sanya had been taking turns staying in their room to make sure that nothing happened to their belongings and that they could have access to them in case their room keys get deactivated. They’ve been surviving on Bethea’s disability payments from a knee injury.

Happily, those days will soon be over for them; Sanya will also be resuming his job as a cab driver. But the donation only covered about half of the evacuees. More than a hundred people will have to enter New York City’s shelter system and work with public services to figure out the next step.

The disaster preparations that Bloomberg and other politicians have proposed include improvements to the electrical grid, changes in building standards and showing up levies. Equal attention needs to be given to people who are displaced by such storms.

With scientists warning that climate change could create more hurricanes, we need to make preparations for the many whose lives will be disrupted by such extreme weather events — and for the many whose lives still are not yet back to normal from the most recent disasters.