House Wanted

What to Do With the Thousands Displaced by Hurricane Sandy?

Just as New York and New Jersey officials were struggling to assess the scope of the housing crisis after the storm, a new nor’easter forced fresh evacuations. Malcolm Jones on the confusion.

11.08.12 9:45 AM ET

In 2007 New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) sponsored a contest. “What if New York City …?” invited architects, designers, and planners to design temporary housing that could serve dense urban spaces in the wake of a Category 3 hurricane. The response was enthusiastic, and the city got enough submissions to select 10 finalists and 10 runners up (PDF).

The designs are striking, but not nearly as striking as the prescient opening paragraph of the city’s invitation:

In New York City, over eight million people live on land that has 578 miles of waterfront. By 2030, the population is expected to reach nine milllion. At the same time, global climate change has put New York City at an increased risk for a severe coastal storm. In recent years, storms have become more intense, occur more frequently, and continue farther north than they have historically. The city would face many challenges during and after such a storm; one of the most difficult is the possibility that hundreds of thousands of people could lose their homes.

In other words, the city knew what was on the way. And yet, four years after the competition, plans for temporary housing that came out of that competition are still on the drawing board. To get prototypes into production will take at least another year.

“I wish we had this built,” OEM Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno told the New York Post, “but it was hard to fund and hard to get interest in it.” Certainly OEM has taken a strong interest in disaster preplanning on Bruno’s watch, including the comprehensive revision of New York City’s Coastal Storm Plan, which ensures, among other things, that the city can shelter more than 600,000 displaced residents.

Very little about storm relief is easy, starting with an accurate count of those affected. More than a week after Hurricane Sandy ripped up much of New Jersey and New York, official estimates of how many people were driven from their homes by the storm range from 10,000 to more than 40,000. The lowest figures reflect the number of people in government-run shelters, where officials can get an accurate nose count. After that, any figure you hear is going to be “a very rough approximation,” says Frank Berry, a press spokesman in the New York City mayor’s office. “We don’t have an exact figure for the number of displaced people because the situation keeps changing.”

A major snowstorm a week later just makes things harder and more confusing.

Just Wednesday morning, for example, more than 600 elderly people were evacuated from nursing homes in the already hard-hit Rockaway area in anticipation of the approaching nor’easter threatening the region with more flooding, power outages, and snow and ice.

Berry explains that there are different categories of displaced people, including people whose housing was significantly damaged who went to shelters or to stay with friends, people whose homes were destroyed outright, and those whose home will be uninhabitable even after power is restored.

Factoring in the numbers of people who will quickly return to their homes once power is restored, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that as many as 40,000 might be temporarily displaced but that the true number of people with no hope of returning to their homes any time soon was probably around 10,000 people.

Making it official that Sandy had caused a full-blown housing crisis, on Monday Bloomberg appointed Brad Gair, an emergency management specialist, as chief of housing recovery operations. Gair’s first task will be to find housing for those who lost their homes to Sandy.

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The latest figures supplied by the Red Cross National Shelter System for people currently forced to live in shelters by Sandy are 5,361 for New York, 4,229 for New Jersey, and 13 for Connecticut. That does not include evacuees who went to stay with friends or family, nor is it any measure of who was left inconvenienced by the storm as opposed to those who have no home left at all.

How people will be helped is almost as hard to determine as how many people need help. New York state is leaving the choice of solutions up to the various towns and cities affected, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for the simple reason that seaside towns don’t have the same problems as cities with, say, multistory apartment buildings. What the governor called the “community-by-community option” allows some municipalities to offer rent vouchers, or pay to house displaced people in motels or apartments, or even demand the much-maligned FEMA trailers, as hard-hit Nassau County has done.

In New Jersey, which has now been approved for FEMA assistance statewide, more than 4,000 people are still in shelters, but of the 116,000 people affected by Gov. Chris Christie’s evacuation order, “we have no idea how many of those actually left their homes before the storm or lost property,” said Kevin Roberts, a spokesman with the governor’s office.

Not everything is so uncertain, of course. The devastation visited on the New Jersey’s barrier islands is not the least bit ambiguous. Seaside Heights, for example, told its 377 businesses and 14,210 households—all of them banned from reentering the town for at least a week after the storm because of gas leaks—that “due to the fact that 80–90% of all properties in Seaside Heights have sustained some type of damage, we suggest you contact FEMA right away.”

Seaside Heights is already famous as the setting for the reality TV show Jersey Shore, and the cast will reunite for an MTV fundraiser to air on Nov. 15. The money will help restore the demolished boardwalk, work to be coordinated by Architecture for Humanity, a global nonprofit that has coordinated relief efforts in Haiti, Japan, and New Orleans, and is involved in Rockaway restoration as well.

According to cofounder Cameron Sinclair, the nonprofit was also the organizer of the “What if New York …?” contest that produced those modular housing prototypes that never got built.

Asked why that promising program delivered so little, at least so far, Sinclair said, “That’s easy. No one funds resiliency. Everyone funds disaster.” That is, when things are going well, no one feels compelled to spend money on a what-if project. “Funding is based on what goes wrong, not what goes right,” he says.

And while he laments that the project should have gone further by now, he says, “You have to give Bloomberg credit. He’s one of the few mayors in the world who has done anything with [disaster] preplanning.”