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Sandy victims on the move, but temporary housing 'will never be ... home'

BREEZY POINT, N.Y. -- Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy forced Geraldine Duke and her sister, Theresa Nugent, out of their homes with four pets and just a few possessions, they have moved out of the airport motel room where they spent several weeks and into a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.

But their hearts are still in the rubble that is their longtime neighborhood in Breezy Point.

“This is my home. That’s never going to be my home. Ever,” Duke, 46, said Sunday of the Brooklyn apartment, as she tried to clear a path through the debris clogging the Asian-themed garden outside of her sister’s Breezy Point bungalow.

Duke and Nugent, 48, who share their new apartment with their partners, are among the tens of thousands of residents of New Jersey and New York who have been forced to relocate in the aftermath of Sandy, straining community and family ties, breaking household budgets and adding an extra helping of stress by forcing them to search for housing.

It’s not clear how many are temporarily without homes as a result of the storm, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday it has provided more than $350 million in rental assistance to people in those states plus Rhode Island and Connecticut, with nearly 70 percent of that going to New Yorkers.

Overall, some 450,000 people in those four states have applied for housing aid that includes rental or repairs, with more than $820 million approved, FEMA said.

Governors of the two hardest-hit states, New Jersey and New York, have not requested mobile homes or trailers, though some have been stationed in the area in case they do, FEMA representatives said. In the meantime, the agency will provide up to 18 months’ rent for temporary housing while residences are being repaired, and is paying for motel and hotel stays for others displaced by the storm.

FEMA said it increased the rent allocation by 25 percent over the normal going rate in both states after it became apparent that the cost of rental units could become a limiting factor.

That should open up another 1,800 rental units in New York and another 1,200 in New Jersey, FEMA said.

“People know what the New York housing market was like anyway prior to Sandy. It’s merely stating the obvious that Sandy made it that much worse,” said William L. Rukeyser, a FEMA spokesman in New York.

And even with the increase, some victims told NBC News the initial payments were not enough to pay for an apartment in the tight New York City housing market, where the rental vacancy rate was only about 3 percent in 2011. Government figures show that in the city, the monthly rent provided could range from $1,500 to $2,655, while in Atlantic City, N.J., it could be from $1,020 to $2,360.

Unlike the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, when victims were widely dispersed to dozens of states, Sandy's victims are tending to stay locally, initially bunking with relatives or friends. But now they are searching for more permanent shelter as they begin the long process of cleaning or repairing their homes.

In communities like Breezy Point, where generations of families were often affected, parents, grandparents and kids are forced are frequently forced to squeeze into a rental unit and commute to their damaged or destroyed homes.

The Jordan family, which called Breezy Point home until the storm flooded their house, is split up across New York. The parents are staying with a friend in Staten Island, their daughter is living with a classmate who attends her Brooklyn high school, and their autistic son is upstate with friends so he can follow a familiar routine. 

Liz Jordan, 57, came out of retirement a few weeks ago to take a job with the federal government. That job has become critical after the disaster, which also claimed all of her family's cars.

It takes Jordan and her husband hours to get to Breezy Point from Staten Island, and they’ve told their four adult children who want to come home to help that they can’t since they have nowhere to put them. But the long list of their tasks is manifold, with an apartment being just one more thing to do.

“We have to find a place to be a family again and just be together,” Jordan said.

They’ve also had to explain to their autistic 17-year-old son what happened to their community.

 “We need to get some place where the kids can get back to school, whether we have to drive them or not, you know, some place that’s safe, that we like,”  Jordan said.

Many storm victims share similar “conflicting realities,” said Rukeyser, the FEMA spokesman.

“People want to move into solid housing. They also want to stay as close as possible to their homes,” he said. “Depending on where they lived before Sandy, there may in fact not be available rentals in the locations that they would most prefer, and you know, that’s a real difficulty for families and they have to make, in some cases, hard decisions.”

For some storm victims, the uncertainty over how long they will be displaced and the time it would take traveling back and forth to their damaged homes are outweighed by a desire to begin rebuilding. So instead, they are camping out in their damaged homes, without light or heat as temperatures dip into the 30s at night.

Among them is Tom Dillon, 46, who usually lives with his father-in-law, wife, son, daughter, four dogs, three cats and a turtle in a two-story home in Breezy Point.

Dillon, whose home was flooded the night of Oct. 29, has since ripped out the insulation and pulled up the floors. He sleeps for a few hours each night in a sofa chair in front of a crackling fire in his fireplace, which he also uses to boil tea, make coffee and noodles.

An electrician certified the second floor of his home to receive power last Thursday and he hopes that the lights will come on in the next few weeks. Most of his family is staying in New Jersey.

“Just trying to get my family back in here,” he said. “We just want to be home and that’s it. This is getting a little, getting a little hard, you know what I mean. We’re not together right now.”

In front of his home stands a sign, reading: "There will be no crisis this week ... my schedule is full!"

The family won’t mind being at home while the repairs are ongoing, he added: “We’re just going to have live roughing it a little bit until the electricity’s on.”

Breezy Point’s cooperative said late Tuesday that a majority of the community was ready for electrical service hook-up, depending on a home’s ability to receive it as determined by an electrician. The gas service is being restored to many areas, too, though, like the electricity, that wouldn’t include the more than 100 homes destroyed in a fire triggered by Sandy or apparently those that have received a “red card,” meaning it’s unsafe to go inside.

For others whose homes are uninhabitable, however, the road back to Breezy Point looks like a long one. Dealing with home and auto insurers and FEMA, finding a temporary place to stay while returning to jobs, and sorting out mortgages and rental cars has put a strain on families.

Terry Foley and her adult daughter, Siobhan, surveyed the damage to the two-story pink oceanfront home that had been in the family for nearly 60 years as they waited a third time for an insurance representative.

The house was ripped off its foundation by Sandy and pitched sideways. City inspectors have issued a red card for the home.

“I want everyone to come. I want them to tell us and then I want to bulldoze it because I can’t look at it anymore. I can’t, it’s horrible. I’d rather see a gaping hole than this,” Siobhan Foley, a teacher, said Sunday.

Her mother, who works in special education, lamented that she could not go inside to retrieve cherished items, such as her mother’s china.

“We have nothing,” she said. “I’m sleeping on a toy blow-up bed that if you move, the pillow flies off, OK, and then I have one card table. Is that a life?”

They took a two-bedroom apartment in nearby Brooklyn because they were desperate, she said. But Siobhan Foley said sharing an apartment adds to the stress.

“Living in a house is one thing, together, but an apartment, not so much fun. I gotta be honest,” she said.

Many in Breezy Point said the thing they miss most by being displaced are the community ties. Some reminisced about meeting up for a drink at the local pubs or to watch a football game, while others said it could take hours to get home since you’d meet friends along the way.

“There’s one road that goes into this community. One road in, one road out. Everyone you see, you kind of know,” said Roy Currlin, 49, and Nugent’s boyfriend, who is sharing the apartment with Geraldine Duke and her husband after his Breezy Point home flooded. “That sense of closeness is lost.”

They will try to re-create that atmosphere, many residents said, even though they fear the recovery could take a year or more.

Apart from the homes that burned down here, a number of others floated off their foundations, including one that came to rest on the deck of Nugent’s home.

Duke clipped plants and pulled weeds on Sunday as she cleaned her sister’s garden. They are trying to make the home accessible so they can get it inspected and begin the repairs, as they’ve been able to do with the home that Duke lived in nearby with her husband.

In the meantime, they’ve had to share the few clothes they have, sleep on air mattresses and tend to their mutual pets, including one – Rocky, a 2-year-old Cocker Spaniel – who has become anxious and fearful after the storm.

But despite the obvious losses, Nugent, who this past Sunday gathered some salvageable wet clothes from her home, said she had the most important things in their new place.

“I pretty much brought what I needed to make it feel like home, you know,” she said, “the people and the animals.”

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