Housing crisis looms as U.S. storm victims battle cold
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A housing crisis loomed in New York City as victims of superstorm Sandy struggled on Sunday without heat in near-freezing temperatures, and officials fretted displaced residents would not be able to vote in Tuesday's presidential election.
Fuel shortages and power outages lingered nearly a week after one of the worst storms in U.S. history flooded homes in coastal neighbourhoods, leaving many without heat and in need of shelter in New York and New Jersey. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said 30,000 to 40,000 people in New York City alone would need housing, including around 20,000 from public housing.
"We don't have a lot of empty housing in this city. It's a problem to find housing. We're not going to let anybody go sleeping in the street," Bloomberg said. "But it's a challenge and we're working on this as fast as we can."
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Sunday federal agencies are looking for apartments and hotel rooms for people displaced by Sandy.
"Our goal is to try to get people out of the shelters," Napolitano said at a news conference in New Jersey with Governor Chris Christie.
Overnight, at least two more bodies were found in New Jersey - one dead of hypothermia - as the overall North American death toll from Sandy climbed to at least 111.
"People are in homes that are uninhabitable," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference. "People don't like to leave their home, but the reality is going to be in the temperature."
Concerns are growing that voters displaced by Sandy won't get to polling stations on Tuesday. Scores of voting centres were rendered useless by the record surge of seawater in New York and New Jersey.
Temperatures dipped to 39 Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) early on Sunday morning in New York City, the lowest in days, with freezing temperatures expected overnight. An early-season "Nor'easter" storm was expected to hit the battered New England coast this week with strong winds and heavy rain.
"The power is back but we have no heat," said Adeline Camacho, a volunteer who was handing out soup and sandwiches to needy residents of the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Sunday. "A lot of people haven't been able to bathe or stay warm. Last night was cold and this night is going to be much worse."
Fuel supplies continued to rumble toward disaster zones and electricity was slowly returning to darkened neighbourhoods, after the storm slammed the coast last Monday.
In New Jersey, where residents were waiting for hours in line at gas stations, Christie tried to ease the fuel crunch by reassuring people that refineries and pipelines were back online and gas was being delivered. "We do not have a fuel shortage," he said at a news conference.
A reopened New York Harbour meant fuel was reaching terminals, even as major facilities remained idle.
Bloomberg said it would be a "very, very long time" before power would return to certain New York neighbourhoods along the coast, where buildings were destroyed. Cuomo said fuel shortages are improving but problems will persist for "a number of days."
Power restorations over the weekend relit the skyline in Lower Manhattan for the first time in nearly a week and allowed 80 percent of the New York City subway service to resume. Most schools were due to reopen on Monday.
Some 1.9 million homes and business still lacked power across the Northeast on Sunday, down from 2.5 million the day before.
Still, a quarter of New Jersey and almost a tenth of New York remained in the dark, the Department of Energy said. Just after Sandy tore across the densely populated area, more than 8.5 million customers were without power.
"All these numbers are nice but they mean nothing until the power is on in your house," said Cuomo, who warned he would hold the utility companies accountable "100 percent" for their recovery work.
STRUGGLING IN STATEN ISLAND
Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean before turning north and hammering the U.S. Eastern Seaboard on Monday with 80 mile-per-hour (130-kph) winds and a record surge of seawater.
The two new deaths in New Jersey - where the storm came ashore last Monday night - included a 71-year-old man who suffered from hypothermia and a 55-year-old man who died from smoke inhalation in a house fire, police said on Sunday.
That raised New Jersey's death toll to 24 while the New York City death count was 40.
In the hard-hit borough of Staten Island, Marie Mandia's house had a yellow sticker on it, meaning the city restricted her use of it. The storm surge broke through her windows and flooded her basement and main floor, the retired teacher said.
"I'm not staying here. There's no protection," said Mandia, 60, who stood outside by a pile of her ruined things - a washer, drier, television and furniture. "Here's my life. Everybody's looking at it."
On Friday, Bloomberg abruptly called off the city's marathon, which was set for Sunday, bowing to criticism that the event would divert resources from flood-ravaged neighbourhoods.
The race had been expected to draw more than 40,000 runners to the city from around the world. Instead, hundreds of runners set off on informal runs to deliver food and clothes to Staten Island and other areas in need.
More than 1,000 people crowded onto two Staten Island Ferry boats early on Sunday, headed to the stricken borough with relief supplies including food and plastic bags.
Ruth Silverberg, 59, returned to her Staten Island home Sunday for the first time since the storm. She had been on a cruise in the Bahamas and found more than 4 feet (1.2 meters) of water in her basement. "Things were just floating. I thought it would take me two weeks to clear it out," she said.
Instead, a group of 15 marathon runners formed an assembly line and cleared the basement of its contents in two hours. "I'm awed," Silverberg said, her voice choking.
ELECTION FACES 'REAL PROBLEMS'
President Barack Obama, neck-and-neck in opinion polls with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, ordered emergency response officials to cut through government "red tape" and work without delay to help affected areas return to normal.
With the post-storm chaos overshadowing the final days of campaigning, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 68 percent of those surveyed approved of how Obama handled Sandy and just 15 percent disapproved.
Christie, a Republican who raised eyebrows this week with his effusive praise of the Democratic President's handling of the storm, said on Sunday he still intended to vote for Romney.
New Jersey has said it will allow people displaced by the storm to vote by email and in New York City, some 143,000 voters will be reassigned to different polling sites.
Bloomberg said the Board of Elections has "real problems," and warned that it would be critical to make sure poll workers were informed of the changes.
"Unfortunately, there is a history of not communicating changes to their poll workers," Bloomberg said, adding the board has proven to be "dysfunctional" in recent years.