(MCT) — NEW YORK — With power slowly returning to New York and New Jersey and emergency fuel being rushed into the region, authorities turned Sunday to a potentially bigger problem in the wake of super storm Sandy: where to house the tens of thousands of people whose homes are no longer habitable.
With a freeze expected in some areas Monday and another, smaller storm on the horizon, the housing problem took on urgency. Even with power and fuel restored, many houses no longer have functioning heating systems, since flooding saltwater ruined many basement heaters and electrical systems.
“People are in homes that are uninhabitable,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a Sunday news conference. “It’s going to be increasingly clear that they’re uninhabitable when the temperature drops and the heat doesn’t come on.”
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, appearing at a news conference with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, called housing “the No. 1 concern.”
“We don’t even know yet which of the houses are reparable and which are irreparable losses,” she said. “Those assessments are going on right now as well as finding temporary housing for individuals who can’t move back to their home right away.”
New York City alone estimated that about 20,000 people would be left homeless there. Long Island and seaside New Jersey accounted for many more.
“It’s unreal what’s going on here,” said Pinny Dembitzer, president of the Sea Gate Association in a hard-hit seaside neighborhood in Brooklyn. As many as 25 homes in the private community were lost to the storm, and about half of the remaining 825 or so were badly damaged, Dembitzer said.
The 3,000 families in the neighborhood, many of them Orthodox Jews, struggled to dig out of the mud.
Soaked and dirt-caked prayer books were piled along the road, drying in the sun as they awaited burial. They were too holy to be simply thrown away, Dembitzer said.
Construction crews, sanitation workers and volunteers worked around the clock to move rubble from basements as temperatures dipped. Hundreds of volunteers, most from outside the community, handed out hot food, blankets and clothes to help people prepare for the cold weather.
Residents were shaken by reports of a nor’easter that could hit the region as soon as Wednesday.
Chanie Fettman gasped when her husband, Moishe Yosef Fettman, whispered in her ear about the approaching storm.
“I can kiss the tiles of my roof goodbye,” Moishe Fettman said. The family had weathered the hurricane safely but their basement flooded, ruining cherished belongings.
Forecasters said the new storm could bring rain, snow, more flooding and 55 mph winds to areas shattered by Sandy. At least 110 people died, most in New York and New Jersey, when the massive storm howled through the Northeast last Monday.
Signs of recovery were accumulating, as volunteers, supplies and relief money poured into the region. More subway lines began operating in New York City. The South Ferry station in Lower Manhattan, which Cuomo had compared to “a large fish tank,” was pumped dry after filling with water 30 feet deep.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg promised that city schools would reopen Monday even if kids had to be bused to different buildings. “Our kids have not had school for a week, and this is damaging them for the longer term,” he said.
Christie said 800 of New Jersey’s 2,400 schools would open Monday.
New Jersey’s Division of Elections is taking extraordinary measures to ensure that people displaced by the storm can still vote in Tuesday’s presidential election. The state agency said registered voters can cast a ballot at any polling place in the state, and can make arrangements to vote by email or fax.
In many places devastated by Sandy, people gathered to help one another. After the New York City Marathon was canceled, there were reports of runners dressed in distinctive orange marathon gear boarding the Staten Island Ferry to help people in that borough, which sustained some of the worst damage and at least 19 deaths.
“If there is a silver lining in this truly tragic storm, it is to see New Yorkers come out and come together. It’s to see the spirit of community and the spirit of neighborliness,” Cuomo said. “The nation knows New Yorkers as tough, that we’re tough. We’re tough! But we’re also sweet and we’re kind and we’re generous, and we’re giving, and you can see that all over the state today.”
In Hoboken, N.J., construction worker Carlos Aponte was among those cheering from the street Sunday when power finally flickered on in his apartment building. He said the storm had brought out the best in people.
“The town came together,” he said. “The people that have power are helping other people charge phones. I think it made Hoboken a better place. On a regular day, everybody sticks to who you know. Now, people have extension cords just hanging out their windows. It gives me hope for the world.”
Huge challenges remain. As of Sunday afternoon, there were still nearly 1.9 million customers without power in seven states — as far south as West Virginia, as far north as Connecticut and as far west as Ohio. New York and New Jersey accounted for about 90 percent of the outages, with nearly 1 million customers without power in New Jersey alone.
Christie said 11,000 utility workers were working to bring back power.
“I know that when I tell you we’re under a million people out of power from 2.7 (million), that that doesn’t mean a damn thing to you unless your power’s on. I get it, I get it, all right? So! We won’t stop working until every last resident has their power back on.”
(Carcamo reported from New York, Hennessy-Fiske from Hoboken, N.J., and Pearce from Los Angeles. Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)