NEW YORK -- Gwendolyn Bethea has been living in a small room at the Park Central hotel in Midtown Manhattan with her adult son, Gabriel Sanya, since Hurricane Sandy destroyed their Far Rockaway apartment almost a year ago.
The federal government covered the cost of their hotel stay until Sept. 30, when funding ran out. The city paid for a few more days, through Friday. Unable to afford the room themselves, Bethea, 58, and Sanya, 27, faced limited options.
"I'm not going to lie," Sanya told The Huffington Post. "I was starting to panic."
Then they received a phone call from an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which has represented some Sandy evacuees in state court this year. The attorney told them that an anonymous donor had made a last-minute $1 million contribution to pay for the hotel stays of nearly half of nearly 300 New York City Sandy evacuees still displaced. Bethea and Sanya were among the lucky ones.
"This is what you call a miracle," said Bethea.
Bethea, Sanya and the other Sandy evacuees still living in more than two dozen hotels throughout New York City have uncertain futures now that the government has stopped picking up the tab for their rooms. On Friday afternoon, as the funding expired and hotel staff and relief agencies tried to sort out who the surprise donation would apply to, many of the evacuees decided to stay put.
Tenants' rights laws protect hotel guests from being thrown out of their rooms as long as they have lived there for at least 30 days. Even if they never pay another dime to the hotel, it can take months for a hotel to win an eviction order in housing court.
Meanwhile, some evacuees have adopted defensive tactics to ensure they can maintain access to their rooms and belongings. At Park Central on Friday, Sanya and Bethea made sure one of them was in their room at all times, in case their room keys were deactivated.
The surprise last-minute contribution, given to the New York Disaster Interfaith Services on Thursday, only applies to Sandy victims who have what the charity called a "sustainable recovery plan," Peter Gudaitis , the disaster aid group's chief response officer, told HuffPost. About 140 people working with a case manager who have been accepted into a government housing program such as Section 8, or who are rebuilding their own homes will continue to have the cost of their hotel rooms covered.
"We're trying to do the best we can for the clients we have," Gudaitis said. "The goal is to get clients to be self-sufficient," Those not meeting the charity's standard will have to go back into the city shelter system and work with public services to navigate their options. "That may sound harsh, but the scale of this disaster is way out of our league," he added.
After Sandy, the city got federal funds to pay for hotel rooms for more than 3,000 New York City residents, mainly from Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, who were displaced from their homes and needed temporary emergency shelter. Most of those evacuees have found new housing.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has reimbursed the city for more than $73 million for hotel bills. But FEMA notified the city in August that its funding for the hotel program would dry up at the end of September. (The termination of funding is unrelated to the partial government shutdown, though the shutdown may affect other recovery efforts.)
Without Washington's aid money, the Bloomberg administration wouldn't pay the $2 million a month to cover the rooms for the remaining 300 evacuees. A state Supreme Court judge on Sept. 27 allowed the city to end the program after city attorneys argued the shelter system could absorb the people still in need. A member of every household was notified in person about on the day of the judge's decision about the imminent closure of the hotel program, a Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman said.
"For over 10 months, the city has dedicated tremendous effort and resources to more than 3,000 individuals displaced by Hurricane Sandy," City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, the Bloomberg administration's top lawyer, said in a statement Sept. 27. "Interim housing, along with intensive case management services, was provided, but [it] was never intended to be a permanent solution."
A FEMA spokesman declined to explain the aid cutoff, beyond telling HuffPost that "state and city programs for temporary at-risk populations are being reimbursed for all eligible costs."
Relocating to a city-run shelter is a grim prospect for many evacuees.
"One is in the Bronx, one is in Brooklyn and the one in Staten Island is, from what I understand, a God-awful place," said Carol Hefty, a widowed retiree on Staten Island. She's rebuilding her home that was destroyed by floodwater and is staying at a Ramada Inn on Staten Island.
Compared with other Sandy evacuees who still have no housing lined up, Bethea and Sanya are in a good position. Although they've barely been able to make ends meet with disability payments from a knee injury Bethea suffered, they expect to move into a new apartment in Far Rockaway with a Section 8 voucher as soon as this week. And when Sanya resumes his job as a cab driver on Monday, they expect their financial position to improve.
Evacuees said living indefinitely in a hotel is no vacation. Many of the rooms are filled with boxes and garbage bags holding belongings salvaged from waterlogged homes, leaving barely any open floor space.
It's a 90-minute commute for Cherell Manuel to bring her 7-year-old daughter Najh-ja to her second-grade class in Far Rockaway from the Manhattan Hotel in Midtown. Just preparing a home-cooked meal is something Manuel hasn't done for Najh-ja and her two other daughters, both in their early-20s, for almost a year. They expect to move into a Section 8-subsidized three-bedroom apartment in the Rockaways this week
Manuel and her daughters were relieved that the donor's gift would cover their hotel stay. Still, Manuel said she was outraged that the government would cut funding for the hotel program.
"This hasn't been easy for us," Manuel said. "This has been a real journey. Being in a hotel is no treat. This is not like being in a home. This is a small space. We had a tragedy up here in New York City, and they're ready to throw us to the curb."
Also on HuffPost:
President Barack Obama
In a hastily organized press briefing at the White House, Obama said Monday that his race with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is the furthest thing from his mind as the East Coast braces for what could be its worst storm in history. "I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election. I am worried about the impact on families. I am worried about the impact on our first responders," he said. "The election will take care of itself next week." ... He also sent out a campaign email on Monday urging supporters to heed advice from local authorities and extending an early thank you to first responders. “Michelle and I are keeping everyone in the affected areas in our thoughts and prayers. Be safe,” reads the email, signed by Obama. -- <em><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/hurricane-sandy-obama_n_2042403.html?1351610452">HuffPost's Jennifer Bendery and Lynne Peeples </a></em>
Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney took a moment in an overflow room ahead of a campaign rally Monday to express his concern for those in the path of Hurricane Sandy and encourage the people of Ohio to do what they could to help those out east. “I want to mention that our hearts and prayers are with all the people in the storm's path," he said in Avon Lake, Ohio. "Sandy is another devastating hurricane by all accounts, and a lot of people are going to be facing some real tough times as a result of Sandy's fury." He went on to encourage those who can afford it to make a donation to the Red Cross. "If there are other ways that you can help, please take advantage of them because there will be a lot of people that are going to be looking for help and the people in Ohio have big hearts, so we're expecting you to follow through and help out," he said. Romney concluded the rally by echoing his comments from the overflow room. "This looks like another time we all need to come together," he said. -- <em><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/mitt-romney-hurricane-sandy_n_2039620.html?1351610466">HuffPost's Elise Foley</a></em>
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) continued his praise of President Barack Obama's work responding to Hurricane Sandy, using a press briefing Monday evening to note that he appreciated the "leadership" Obama was showing in the emergency. Christie, a prominent surrogate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said that he and Obama had a private phone conversation on Monday to discuss how the federal government could help New Jersey. He said that Obama told Christie that he could call him directly over the next 48 hours if the state government had issues with federal response to the hurricane in New Jersey. “I appreciate that type of leadership," Christie said of Obama. The Republican governor said most of the call centered on Obama's concern for New Jersey and then he continued to heap praise on the president, saying Obama's work has been "proactive." Christie shortened a campaign trip for Romney to return to New Jersey to handle the storm response. Christie started his praise of Obama during press briefings on Sunday, when he said "appreciated" Obama's outreach to him and the governors of other states being impacted by Hurricane Sandy. During a press briefing on Monday afternoon, Christie described another call he had with Obama and said that the president and his aides have been working to benefit New Jersey. “We appreciate the president’s efforts in that regard," Christie said earlier Monday. "He and his staff worked tremendously hard.” -- <em><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/chris-christie-sandy-obama_n_2041673.html">HuffPost's John Celock</a></em>
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Newark Mayor Cory Booker
Former Vice President Al Gore
This week, our nation has anxiously watched as Hurricane Sandy lashed the East Coast and caused widespread damage--affecting millions. Now more than ever, our neighbors need our help. Please consider donating or volunteering for your local aid organizations. The images of Sandy’s flooding brought back memories of a similar--albeit smaller scale-- event in Nashville just two years ago. There, unprecedented rainfall caused widespread flooding, wreaking havoc and submerging sections of my hometown. For me, the Nashville flood was a milestone. For many, Hurricane Sandy may prove to be a similar event: a time when the climate crisis—which is often sequestered to the far reaches of our everyday awareness became a reality. While the storm that drenched Nashville was not a tropical cyclone like Hurricane Sandy, both storms were strengthened by the climate crisis. Scientists tell us that by continually dumping 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every single day, we are altering the environment in which all storms develop. As the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm, storms are becoming more energetic and powerful. Hurricane Sandy, and the Nashville flood, were reminders of just that. Other climate-related catastrophes around the world have carried the same message to hundreds of millions. Sandy was also affected by other symptoms of the climate crisis. As the hurricane approached the East Coast, it gathered strength from abnormally warm coastal waters. At the same time, Sandy's storm surge was worsened by a century of sea level rise. Scientists tell us that if we do not reduce our emissions, these problems will only grow worse. Hurricane Sandy is a disturbing sign of things to come. We must heed this warning and act quickly to solve the climate crisis. Dirty energy makes dirty weather.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
"Our thoughts and prayers rest with the families, friends, and loved ones of all those who have lost their lives in the course of Hurricane Sandy, and our hearts go out to the millions of Americans waking up to destruction and devastation in their homes and communities today. "We are all grateful to the rescue workers and first responders working around-the-clock to save lives, restore power, and deal with the immediate aftermath of the storm. Federal, state, and local authorities have worked hand-in-hand to prepare for and respond to this natural disaster, and we will continue to do so as Americans begin to take stock of the damage, recover, and rebuild. "All Members of Congress stand ready to offer our aid and assistance to communities affected by Hurricane Sandy. As we have done in the past, the American people will stand united to confront the impact of this storm and start the work of recovery."
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.)
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.)
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.)
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)
Rep. Steve Austria (R-Ohio)
Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.)
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.)
“Hurricane Sandy hit New York and the Northeast hard last night and will complicate life in our region for the coming days. I am astounded at what I have seen in my own congressional district: flooding throughout Coney Island, Battery Park City, and other areas; widespread power outages; felled trees everywhere you look; and some very tragic fatalities. I am grateful to our local responders and laborers, who are doing a tremendous job on emergency response. And, through the President’s declaration of New York as a major disaster area, we will be able to immediately allocate FEMA funds to begin to repair the billions of dollars in damage locally and bring relief to New Yorkers whose lives have been turned upside down.”