Nearly a year and a half after Superstorm Sandy, most storm victims have left hotels and motels behind, moving back home or into temporary rentals. But there are some storm survivors who have not yet checked out.
At least a handful of the guests at the motel in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, which caught fire last week, were Sandy refugees.
In East Brunswick, Murraylene Tucker has called the Days Inn home since January. She has a small, but clean room on the fourth floor overlooking Route 18.
“It’s bigger than a cell,” she jokes.
There are laundry machines in the basement, but no kitchen, just a mini fridge and microwave next to the bed. She’s learned to use it to make simple meals, like hard-boiled eggs.
Sandy left four feet of water in the first floor of Tucker’s home in nearby South River and she hasn’t been able to start rebuilding it.
For nine months after the storm, she rented a room from a friend with a small grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and her savings, but when that ended, she turned to hotels.
Initially, she charged $7,000 on her credit cards for a few months at the Comfort Suites down the road, before relocating to the Days Inn, where her county’s social services covers her $1,500-a-month bill. She’s been trying to get rental assistance through FEMA, but has struggled to get her application approved.
“This is the seventh time I’m filling it out,” she said, gesturing to a stack of papers. “But they want more detail with some of the answers, so they narrow down on like question seven or question eleven. And they want more documents to prove these questions’ answers.”
FEMA’s rental assistance program is now set to expire at the end of April, so Tucker’s also applying to a state program that would cover six months of rent. In the meantime, she’s burned through her savings, which makes signing a rental lease difficult. She’s on Social Security disability.
“It’s the impermanence of it, I think, that’s the most distracting,” she says.
Hotel living is not an ideal situation, agrees Candace Crane, the director of the Middlesex County Long-Term Recovery Group.
“Whenever stories like that do come forward — which luckily are few and far between, but when they do come forward — I’m surprised and then a little bit saddened that they’ve somehow fallen through the cracks,” she said.
In the last six months, Crane has come across only two families in her county staying in hotels; her organization helped them move into rentals.
However, it’s incredibly difficult to figure out how many other people might be in a similar situation — or even simply to track the number of people who are still displaced due to Sandy, living in rentals or staying with family.
FEMA is currently providing rental assistance to only about 900 families now. There are a few dozen more living in mobile homes and temporary housing at Fort Monmouth.
But New Jersey doesn’t have current estimates of people who have not been able to return home after the storm.
“There’s kind of an underground of people that everyone knows we don’t know about,” said Crane. “They probably do need help, but just haven’t come forward to get that help and we don’t know if they ever will.”
The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs doesn’t offer estimates of displaced people based on Sandy grant applications and the Department of Human Services can’t supply the number of residents getting rental assistance through their programs, because those figures include payments for mortgages, too. A spokesperson for Governor Christie’s office says the number people of still displaced is an “elusive figure.”
“Our numbers are indicating that it’s possible that even a quarter of those who are out of their homes did not apply for state aid because they weren’t eligible or didn’t believe that they were eligible,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Murray has been trying to tackle the question of how many people are still displaced due to Sandy through polling, surveys, and combining numerous data sets, but he’s still at a loss for answers.
“You can’t even take a guess,” he said. “It’s likely to be in the tens of thousands, but we’re not sure if it’s the low tens or the high tens.”
Murray say this is not an unusual problem after a disaster, but the more that’s known about who’s still displaced, the better the chance of helping them.