From Kristina Sgueglia and Todd Sperry, CNN
NEW YORK (CNN) – New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg found himself facing questions Thursday about why the city was paying for more than 100 vacant hotel rooms when thousands were displaced after Superstorm Sandy.
The rooms were reserved for storm victims who were pushed out of their homes by Sandy, which hit the area October 29. According to Bloomberg’s office, a total of 1,014 people were housed in 416 rooms, while another 120 rooms designated as emergency housing were vacant.
“We’ve gone out and we’ve gotten housing for people in case they might need it, but the wonderful thing is we haven’t needed it so far,” Bloomberg said Thursday.
“We have hotel rooms in advance, particularly now because as you get toward the holiday season the hotel occupancy goes up, and if we need it — and I hope we don’t — we’re going to have those,” he added.
That’s a surprise to Nicole Neal, whose whose apartment in the Queens neighborhood of Far Rockaway hasn’t had heat or power since the storm hit. “I would go to the hotel,” Neal told CNN on Thursday. “It’s freezing in my apartment. I got to wear four pairs of socks every day.”
Yisroel Schulman, president of the New York Legal Assistance Group, said scores of families are staying in cold, dark homes because they are concerned about looting or they don’t want to pull their children from school.
“We believe strongly the minute that first snow hits, and it’s really cold, these people are going to need housing,” Schulman said. “It’s a very prudent move on apart of the city to have as much temporary housing as possible.”
The city says canvassers have knocked on more than 12,600 doors to tell people that housing assistance is available for those who still lack heat, and they leave flyers on the doors of units where no one answers. Residents are being told about restoration centers where they can be connected with hotels if their heat is still out.
Neal said she had not been contacted about the available hotel rooms. She has been staying with her mother in a crowded Brooklyn apartment while she awaits repairs to her apartment, where she said the walls are caving in and mold is growing on the walls.
She said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has given her $1,700 and that the city took over responsibility for the housing complex she lived in because the landlord abandoned it.
“That’s why I am so mad,” she said. “We still don’t have lights. It’s crazy.”
Bloomberg’s office said the city expects FEMA to reimburse it for the hotel rooms. FEMA spokesman Dan Watson told CNN that the agency would consider that, provided the city could provide some justification for the costs.
As of Wednesday, 473,785 households in New York and New Jersey had applied for disaster relief assistance with FEMA. While not all of the families were requesting housing assistance, officials said they continue to work with state and local officials to help all victims of the deadly storm.
Meanwhile, the agency started exploring the possibility of housing some displaced residents on boats, posting a request for information in hopes of finding rapid, cost-effective housing options on small vessels.
FEMA said the purpose of the request was for market research only and to explore whether the maritime industry could offer viable options for residents who remain homeless. Officials said the vessels they requested ideally would sleep two to six adults, either as stand-alone boats or interconnected to create a single dwelling made of multiple units.
The request for information specifically said the agency isn’t looking for cruise ships as a solution to the crisis caused by the colossal storm that pounded the Northeast last month. FEMA faced criticism from residents and politicians for its decision to house first responders and emergency personnel on cruise ships docked in New Orleans and other cities after Hurricane Katrina.
Sandy slammed ashore near Atlantic City, New Jersey after forming in the Caribbean and sweeping northward, killing a total of 182 people from Haiti to Canada.
It caused widespread flooding and damage and destroyed or damaged more than 30,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey alone, state officials said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the latest estimates of Sandy-related storm costs in his state were $36.8 billion, while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters earlier this week the total cost in his state was $41 billion.