By Michelle Conlin
NEW YORK (Reuters) - At nighttime, high up in the apartment buildings that tower over New York's Rockaway Peninsula, it's so inky black inside that residents have to use their hands to feel their way along the concrete walls, inch by inch, to get up and down the stairs, over to their neighbors, or back to their front doors. The windowless passageways feel like a crypt, unnerving even the most hardened of residents.
For more than a week, ever since Superstorm Sandy turned their community into a beachfront dystopia, flattening cars, mangling the boardwalk, twisting their roads, and cutting off their power, these residents have made do. They've walked up stairs, some as many as 13 flights, to the top of housing complexes like the Dayton Towers in Rockaway Park. They've watched their flashlights die, their toilets clog up, and their neighbors kids bawl a lot. They've lived without cellphones, stores, or showers, eating vacuum-packed, government-supplied ready-made meals of rubbery chicken and paste-like potatoes.
Now, as another storm began hammering through on Wednesday, dropping temperatures to freezing, they see the new reality getting only grimmer as they shiver in the Stygian dark with no heat.
"All my neighbors are still living here, old people, too, and it's getting cold," said marble-installer Eddie Romanoff, 33. "But we have nowhere else to go."
Just a week after the worst storm in many years to slam the Eastern Seaboard trashed thousands of houses and left nearly 1 million people without electricity, local and federal government officials have said that tens of thousands of people in New York and New Jersey are likely to need temporary housing. Either their houses have been demolished or they are unfit to live in because of severe damage and the absence of power, heat and water.
And now they all need a place to live in a region with some of the lowest apartment vacancy rates, and most expensive hotel and rental rates, in the world.
On Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would provide vouchers for people to stay in hotels, paying as much as $295 a night as well as subsidizing longer-term rents. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has hired a new housing czar, Brad Gair, to help find housing for those displaced.
But Wednesday's storm, named Athena after the Greek goddess, is making it painfully clear that for all the good intentions and multiple press conferences, local and federal government officials haven't kept pace with reality. While the so-called nor'easter isn't anything like as dangerous as Sandy, it will bring very strong winds, heavy rain and flooding to a region that isn't in a position to soak it up without further misery.
Up and down the Rockaways peninsula, in communities like Far Rockaway, Belle Harbor and Breezy Point, residents said they had no idea where to go or what to do, or how to stay warm. "This entire community is homeless," said Mary Beth Bevacqua, 40, who was cleaning out her mom's flooded house in Breezy Point on Tuesday as neighbors passed by in waders and wagons. "No one has any place to live."
The refrain, in a number of neighborhoods here, was the same: More help is desperately needed. "We've been forgotten," said Mary Anne Semon, 52, as she helped her mother navigate the misshapen street outside her bungalow in Breezy Point.
As the latest storm got closer, threatening even longer delays for power restoration due to forecast wind gusts of up to 60 mph, another complicating factor emerged. "It's the high season in New York for hotels," says Herve Houdre, regional director of operations for New York's InterContinental Hotel. "It's already the highest time of demand for the year."
Some hotels that accept the FEMA vouchers have long been booked. In Riverhead, Long Island, some guests traveled from as far away as upstate New York to get a room at places like Hotel Indigo and Holiday Inn Express. Both properties are accepting FEMA vouchers. "But we have no rooms," says the director of operations for both properties, Kristen Reyes, who has been getting texts all week from guests begging for rate reductions and time extensions. "We are 100 percent occupied this week and next week."
And as far as apartments go, the displaced say they are encountering the harsh realities of scrambling for rentals at a time when all of their neighbors are, too.
"They're all taken, people were taking those apartments right after the storm, sight unseen," says Ed Power, a 53-year-old retired firefighter from West Islip, a hamlet on Long Island. He doesn't have power. And his father's house in Breezy Point has been knocked off its foundations and turned askew. He says he can bundle up in thermals to handle the cold, but he hasn't been able to find anyplace for his dad to stay. "When you're 93, you're freezing, even in summer."
The day after his red-brick Colonial in Belle Harbor got slammed by Sandy, Matthew LaSorsa started looking for a place for himself, his wife and their 14-year-old twins to stay. He even got his employees, at his wine shop, to do a search. But none of them could find his family any place to live. LaSorsa even lost the $4,400 a month two-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights he thought would come through. "The rental apartments don't seem to be available," says LaSorsa. "There's no emergency relief in terms of housing."
SMELL OF GAS
His relatively well-off neighborhood is marked by disintegration and decay. Front lawns are filled with people's moldy belongings. The air smells of gas. Sewage, sand and hills of dirt fill the streets.
At night, in the pitch black, LaSorsa says it feels like the science fiction movie "Bladerunner." "It's scary," he says.
Like people up and down the Rockaways, LaSorsa and his wife, Jane, say they registered with FEMA, hoping for help with housing, electricity, gas - anything. But they say they haven't heard a thing. They remarked at the irony: living in a world of information with no information. "We're in the dark with what's going on," says Jane. "We're in an echo chamber, there's no captain here."
Three weeks ago, Kelley D'Antonio, a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit at Maimonides Hospital, bought her first house. The 34-year-old put 40 percent down on a $355,000 bungalow in Breezy Point — two feet away from her parents' house next door. It was the place she had grown up in, remembering evenings when she was carted around in a wagon in her pajamas to eat ice cream and watch fireworks. She knew everybody up and down the sandy lane. Now the houses are twisted around or pushed into the street, have raw sewage coursing through them and red condemnation stickers on their doors. Her own home has lost part of its foundation.
Her housewarming party was supposed to be this weekend. Says her mom, Judy, "We were going to string party lights from our house to hers."
(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Additional Reporting by Jennifer Merritt and Karen Freifeld; Editing by Martin Howell and Steve Orlofsky)