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Storm Refugees Struggle To Rebound In Times Square

Natisha Laws near her hotel in the middle of Times Square. She and her family were placed at the DoubleTree in mid-November by FEMA. They lost their rental apartment during Superstorm Sandy and have been struggling to recover. (Cindy Rodriguez for NPR)

The DoubleTree Hotel sits on one of the loudest and glitziest corners of Times Square. It's where enamored 9-year-old Isaiah Douglas has been staying with his mom, dad and little sister.

"It has been a great experience," Isaiah says. But the family isn't there on vacation.

Their story emerges in an elevator as a hotel guest strikes up a friendly conversation with Isaiah's mom, Natisha Laws.

"Where are you from?" the tourist asks.

"I'm from here. I'm from New York. We're with FEMA because of the Hurricane Sandy."

The tourist dramatically gasps, "Did you lose your house?"

"Yeah. We lost everything," Laws replies.

Before Superstorm Sandy, the family was living on the first floor of a rented apartment in Far Rockaway in the borough of Queens. The building was sandwiched between the bay and the ocean, and it flooded when Sandy hit.

Isaiah's dad, Mark Douglas, says they couldn't salvage much of their belongings after the storm.

"The couches, the fridge is in the living room," Douglas says. "Everything is everywhere now."

Eventually, they ended up at an evacuation shelter in the Bronx, and in mid-November, a bus brought them, along with many others, to their current hotel.

Adjusting To A New Reality

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for providing temporary shelter to Sandy refugees, people from about 5,000 displaced households are staying in hotels in New York and New Jersey.

By New York City standards, the family's hotel room is large, but it's still cramped for a family of four with a toddler. There's a small sitting room with a sofa, but no kitchenette. Boxes of cereal sit on a countertop. A frozen dinner is left inside the minifridge.

The window views are of Manhattan high-rises and a flashing billboard for the musical Mamma Mia.

"When we saw this, we couldn't believe it, actually," Douglas says.

But six weeks later, the 26-year-old says reality set in and optimism wore off.

FEMA provided Laws and Douglas with $4,900, which they've spent almost all of on food, transportation and replacing clothes.

"Everything around here is real expensive," he says. "We can't afford none of this stuff, so we basically go to Walgreens, and we purchase what we could off the food stamps, because that's basically the only place around here that will take that."

Douglas says that even before the storm, his young family was struggling. Natisha and the kids moved to Far Rockaway to be with him in September. But he lost his job not long after, and the storm set him back even more.

Their only possessions are a garbage bag full of clothes that sits in the corner, a mobile DVD player and a small laptop computer.

Adding to the family's anxiety is a soon-to-be born baby — Laws is eight months pregnant.

"She's [Laws] stressed out," Douglas says. "She don't know what's going to be the next step, so I try to keep her calm at the same time, the kids calm at the same time, [and] figure out everything that's going to commence for the duration."

For Isaiah, keeping calm involves trips to the Toys R Us store down the street with its gigantic indoor Ferris wheel.

"It's like you're all interested in the same thing, and then we all start talking about the prices and stuff, and then we go home, and there's no fighting or anything," he says.

But Laws says it doesn't take long for her worries to return. The family has no income. Isaiah's been shuffled from one school to another, missing many days. And FEMA has given all families until Jan. 12 to check out, but Laws says the hotel wants them out by Sunday.

"You never know what's supposed to happen once you leave this beautiful hotel," Laws says. "Like where do you go after that? Do you become part of the shelter system? Do you become part of New York homeless? What comes after FEMA stops helping or Red Cross stops helping?"

Laws worries that Sandy will recede in the public's mind — and that her family will be soon forgotten.

Copyright 2014 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.org/.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. This New Year's Eve, some people made homeless by Hurricane Sandy will be in Times Square. But they won't be watching the ball drop by choice. After their homes were ruined by the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed them in hotels in the area. Cindy Rodriguez of member station WNYC visited one family trying to rebound while living in a tourist hot spot.

CINDY RODRIGUEZ, BYLINE: The DoubleTree Hotel sits on one of the loudest and glitziest corners of Times Square. The musical "Annie" is playing right next door. And across the street, tourists line up for discount tickets to Broadway at the red neon TKTS ticket booth. Down the block, Elmo and the Statue of Liberty pose for pictures with tourists. Nine-year-old Isaiah Douglas has been taking it all in.

ISAIAH DOUGLAS: It has been a great experience.

RODRIGUEZ: He's been staying at the DoubleTree with his mom, dad and little sister. But the family didn't come here to see the sights. Their story emerges in the elevator as a hotel guest innocently asks Isaiah's mom, Natisha, where she's from.

NATISHA LAWS: I'm from here. I'm from New York. We're with FEMA because of the Hurricane Sandy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Did you lose your house?

LAWS: Yeah. We lost everything.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, my God, I'm so sorry.

LAWS: It's okay. You didn't tell the storm to come, so...

RODRIGUEZ: FEMA says about 5,000 displaced households are currently staying in hotels in New York and New Jersey. Inside Laws' hotel room on the 13th floor, cartoons are playing on the TV. There's a small sitting room with a sofa, but no kitchenette. Boxes of cereal sit on a countertop. One frozen dinner is left inside the mini fridge.

By New York City standards, the hotel room is large, but still cramped for a family of four with a toddler. The views are of Manhattan high-rises and a flashing billboard for the musical "Mamma Mia."

MARK DOUGLAS: When we saw this, we couldn't believe it, actually.

RODRIGUEZ: That's Mark Douglas, the kid's dad. But six weeks later, the 26-year-old says reality has set in and the optimism has worn off.

DOUGLAS: Everything around here is really expensive. We can't afford none of the stuff, so basically we go to Walgreens, and we purchase what we could off the food stamps because that's basically the only place around here that will take that.

RODRIGUEZ: Douglas says even before the storm, his young family was struggling. Natisha and the kids moved to Far Rockaway, Queens, to be with him in September. But he lost his job not long after, and then the storm hit, setting them back even more. Their only possessions are a garbage bag of clothes that sits in the corner, a mobile DVD player and a small laptop. Natisha is eight months pregnant, and Douglas is overwhelmed.

DOUGLAS: She's stressed out. She don't know what's going to be the next step, so I try to keep her calm at the same time, the kids calm at the same time, figure out everything that's going, you know, to commence for the duration.

RODRIGUEZ: For 9-year-old Isaiah, keeping calm involves trips to the mega Toys R Us down the street with its gigantic indoor Ferris wheel.

DOUGLAS: It's like you're all interested in the same thing, then you got - and then we all start talking about the prices and stuff, and then we go home, and there's no fighting or anything. Everybody's calm and relaxed and sure isn't running around.

RODRIGUEZ: But Natisha Laws says it doesn't take long for her worries to return. The family has spent nearly all the $4,900 it received from FEMA on food, transportation and replacing clothes. They have no other income coming in. Isaiah's been shuffled from one school to another and has missed a lot of days. FEMA has given all families until January 12 to check out. Laws says the hotel has her leaving even sooner, and she's worried.

LAWS: You never know what's supposed to happen once you leave this beautiful hotel. Like where do you go after that? Do you become part of the shelter system? Do you become part of New York homeless? Or, you know, what comes after FEMA stops helping or Red Cross stops helping?

RODRIGUEZ: Laws sees Sandy receding in the public's mind and is concerned her family will soon be forgotten. For NPR News, I'm Cindy Rodriguez in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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