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Thousands Of New Yorkers Homeless After Sandy


In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimates that tens of thousands of people are still homeless after the storm. And today he named a former FEMA official to take charge of the housing recovery effort in the city.

NPR's Martin Kaste has been out in Queens today reporting on the housing situation and he joins us now from our New York bureau. And Martin, first, tell us more about the new housing official. His name is Brad Gair. What more do you know about him?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, he has a background in catastrophe recovery. He used to be a federal recovery officer with FEMA. He worked during the Bush administration on the September 11th terrorist attack recovery. And he was also a deputy commissioner for the city's Office of Emergency Management here in New York from 2006 to 2009. He also, at FEMA, had some experience in Louisiana, especially in the years after Katrina, where housing was probably the number one issue in the first few years after the storm.

BLOCK: And he's facing quite a challenge there in New York. What has he said or what have other people said about their plans to get displaced people into housing?

KASTE: Well, the big issue right now is trying to put some kind of firm numbers on the problem. The mayor is talking about upwards of 40,000 people who need a place to live. It could be more like 20,000. It's hard to put a firm number on it at this stage. And one of the things the city and the federal government are doing is setting up these shelters. They were already set up before the storm. They're high schools, they're gymnasiums, that kind of thing, where people can seek a little warmth and sleep on cots, that kind of thing, using them as processing centers. So people go there, they register with FEMA, and that's when the process of figuring out what they might be entitled to begins.

So people who've lost their house completely or people who just simply can't go back to where they were for whatever the reason, they register there, and then FEMA has said in principle it will pay for hotel rooms up to two weeks at first. They'll pay the hotels directly. In practice, that's not happening often. Some people are going to hotels under that program. Others have been calling these lists of 800 numbers that FEMA has Xeroxed and distributed to them, and they find that the hotels either don't know about the program or aren't really interested in waiting for the government to pay them, that they say they want money up front. So that's still kind of rocky and they're trying to figure that out.

BLOCK: Martin, we mentioned that you were out reporting on the housing situation. You were out in Far Rockaway, Queens, today, which was very badly hit by the storm. What were you hearing from people about whether they're getting the housing help that they need? We mentioned that temperatures are supposed to dip below freezing tonight.

KASTE: Yeah, it's going to be in the 30s tonight. I went to a high-rise apartment building right on the edge of New York City, right there looking out over the water. It's on the edge of Long Island. And these people in there, they've been in this darkened high-rise building now for a week, living basically in the cold. One woman I talked to has been keeping her apartment warm - and I think everybody in the building is doing this - just by boiling water constantly on her gas stove. She even leaves everything on and boiling when she takes her dog for a walk. It kind of worries you there when you think...

BLOCK: Yeah.

KASTE: ...about that prospect. So there is, you know, there's a sense there that they're going to wait it out, they're going to see if the power can be restored to their buildings soon. But I think tonight will be the first real test of how long they want to stay there in those kinds of conditions.

BLOCK: With the temperature going below freezing.

KASTE: Exactly.

BLOCK: Martin, thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Martin Kaste talking with us from our bureau in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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