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For Sandy's homeless, lives of anxiety in hotels

Friday - 1/25/2013, 10:46am  ET

By KATIE ZEZIMA and MEGHAN BARR
Associated Press

TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) - Diane Burstein spends her days sifting through apartment listings and disaster paperwork and her nights lying awake with worry, her daughter and grandson sleeping feet from her in a cramped hotel room.

The family has nowhere else to go. Three months after Superstorm Sandy destroyed their apartment, the Bursteins are among at least 3,500 families displaced by the storm in New York and New Jersey who have been living in hotels and motels, sometimes bouncing to a different room as reservations for weddings, parties and conferences eat up hotel space.

Their hotel stays _ funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency _ expire every two weeks, leaving them in a constant state of anxiety over whether they'll be pushed out onto the street.

"I'm panicking. I just panic," said Burstein, who is staying at a hotel in Toms River. "I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack."

The next deadline is Saturday, when families will learn whether they must pack their bags and check out. The program has been extended in New York and New Jersey until Feb. 9, but individual families are still waiting to hear whether they will be allowed to stay because claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

According to FEMA, people are no longer eligible for hotel assistance if they have received rental assistance, have a viable housing option or an insurance settlement, or can return to a repaired home.

For storm victims with no other housing options, the anxiety is palpable. Most spend their days on the phone with a never-ending stream of federal agencies, contractors and insurance agents, struggling to sort out the housing mess Sandy left behind.

"What happens if you don't have the money to fix your home?" wondered Ayanna Diego, who is holed up at a hotel near LaGuardia Airport with her mother, 17-year-old son and 12-year-old niece. "It's an issue."

Diego, 37, is staring down $180,000 in repairs to her family's home in the Far Rockaway section of Queens. She was laid off from her job at Verizon last summer and is currently living off FEMA money and unemployment checks to feed her family and pay for daily expenses.

The family has been living in a blur of hotel rooms and short-term rentals since the storm. Her 61-year-old mother stopped showing up to work as a roaming public school nurse after the storm because the commute became too difficult.

Diego qualified for the maximum $31,900 lump sum allowed under FEMA's household assistance program, and the money is supposed to be used for home repairs and short-term rentals. Instead, she is using those dollars to pay for gas and tolls to drive her niece to school in their old neighborhood, pay the mortgage on their wrecked home and buy meals for the family of four.

"We're in a hotel. I can't cook," Diego said. "You have breakfast, lunch and dinner. What's happening is you're using that money to survive off of, day to day. We've had to order meals."

Agnes Ruggiero, 69, whose Toms River apartment was destroyed, has been told by FEMA that she shouldn't expect to remain in a hotel for much longer. She doesn't understand why she and others are out of housing options when millions of dollars are being spent to rebuild boardwalks in the tourist-heavy region.

"How could they start worrying about a boardwalk when all these people have no place to live?" she said.

At the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in Toms River, which sits on a state highway leading to a barrier island that suffered some of the state's worst damage, a hotel manager said about 80 percent of the hotel's guests are in the FEMA program.

The Sandy victims have formed a community here, waving to one another as they walk through the lobby to their rooms, sneaking out for cigarettes together and offering rides to people who need them. On a recent afternoon, a white box filled with cookies and cannoli was passed around for someone's birthday.

Burstein, 69, who is on disability, and her 37-year-old daughter _ who doesn't work because her 3-year-old disabled son recently had surgery _ have been living here since early December. Like many other storm victims, they can't find an affordable rental. Even if they did find one, they barely have enough money for a security deposit.

On Saturday, they will file down to the lobby along with the other Sandy refugees to learn their fate, as they do every two weeks. Burstein and Ruggiero said hotel staff will read the names of people whose assistance was extended for another two weeks. In the past, some people have been left off the list.

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