- Associated Press - Monday, November 5, 2012

Government leaders are turning their attention to the next crisis unfolding in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy: finding housing for potentially tens of thousands of people left homeless.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has already dispensed close to $200 million in emergency housing assistance and has put 34,000 people in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area up in hotels and motels.

But local, state and federal officials have yet to lay out a specific, comprehensive plan for finding them long-term places to live, even as cold weather sets in. And given the scarcity and high cost of housing in the metropolitan area and the lack of open space, it could prove a monumental undertaking.

For example, can enough vacant apartments be found? Will the task involve huge, Katrina-style encampments of trailer homes? And if so, where will authorities put the trailers? In stadiums? Parks?

Authorities cannot answers those questions yet.

“It’s not going to be a simple task. It’s going to be one of the most complicated and long-term recovery efforts in U.S. history,” said Mark Merritt, president of Witt Associates, a Washington crisis management consulting firm founded by former FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

Tactics that FEMA used in other disasters could be difficult to apply in the city. For example, Mr. Merritt said, it’s impossible to set up trailers in people’s driveways if everyone lives in an apartment building, and it’s harder to find space to set up mobile homes.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano said Monday that the government is looking into using everything from hotels and motels to FEMA trailers and prefab homes.

“Given the extent of need, no option is off the table,” she said. “All of them will have some place in this puzzle.”

Ms. Napolitano said the government’s first priority is getting people to a warm place where they can eat a hot meal. Beyond that, the government wants to find housing as close to people’s homes as possible.

“Whether we’ll be able to accomplish that, I couldn’t say,” she said. “We’re just now getting a handle on housing.”

Officials have yet to even establish the magnitude of the problem.

In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Monday that officials are going door-to-door in hard-hit areas to assess the need for shelter. He said the worst-case estimate is 40,000 people, half of them in public housing.

But he said as many as 20,000 will probably get their heat and power back within a few days. Ultimately, the number of people who need housing could be less than 10,000, he said.

In New Jersey, state officials said they are still trying to figure out how many people will need long-term housing. At least 4,000 residents were in New Jersey shelters.

In the meantime, Mr. Bloomberg appointed Brad Gair, an emergency management specialist, as chief of housing recovery operations, with responsibility for overseeing the city’s efforts to find shelter for those left homeless by the storm.

At a news conference, the mayor asked for patience after reporters pressed Mr. Gair for more specifics on how he intended to deal with the problem, noting Mr. Gair had been on the job only four hours.

“I want to assure everyone that every New Yorker who needs a warm place to live and a roof over his or her head is going to have one,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

The storm killed more than 100 people in 10 states but vented the worst of its fury on New Jersey and New York. A week after the storm slammed the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, 1.4 million homes and businesses remained in the dark, mostly in New York and New Jersey.

AP writers Michael Hill, Larry Neumeister, Cara Anna, Christina Rexrode, Alicia Caldwell and Frank Eltman contributed to this report.