News

Superstorm Sandy’s unexpected windfall

New York City hotels bursting at the seams

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Features editor — Sunday ?thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, December 09, 2012    

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IN what is usually a slow season as far as occupancy goes, hotels in New York have now found themselves in a fortuitous position. Several of them are fully booked for at least the next two weeks as the US government pays the tab for victims of Superstorm Sandy whose homes were destroyed during the late October system.

At Hampton Inn La Guardia, in East Elmhurst, 40 of its 220 rooms are occupied by hurricane victims and will be that way until at least Friday, December 15.

Director of Guest Services Donna Jarrett — who has Jamaican roots — told the Jamaica Observer that 75 per cent of the hotel’s guests comprised those left stranded by Sandy as well as some emergency workers.

“This time (of the year) is usually a little bit slower. We usually don’t have a lot of guests except for scheduled events.

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, however, the Hampton Inn has had to be turning potential guests away.

“There’s a little bit of a3 pickup now... We’re fortunate; it’s a win-win because normally at this time of the year I would cut down hours because the employees have the opportunity to work overtime,” said Jarrett.

“This week coming up we are over sold by 23 rooms, but we couldn’t kick them (hurricane victims) out. We’re hoping that it will balance out,” she said, adding that her sales strategy favours overselling rather than not selling at all.

“It’s a risk; it’s a gamble, but we don’t want to hold the rooms and end up not selling it to people,” she said.

The peak season for the Hampton Inn, where one night’s stay costs US$189, is from the end of March through to October. The hotel is also usually fully booked in the late summer/early fall when events like the US Open, the General Assembly of the United Nations and New York Yankee games are hosted in the city.

It is one of a long list of hotels and motels across the hurricane-affected states providing temporary disaster shelter. Over at the LaGuardia Plaza, 45 of its rooms 358 rooms were occupied by Hurricane Sandy victims.

“We’re fully booked,” duty manager Mario Carlo told the Sunday Observer.

It wasn’t news to the team which travelled from Kingston, Jamaica to New York for the fund-raising gala staged by the Children of Jamaica Outreach (COJO) last weekend; they were forced to seek accommodation in another hotel as the LaGuardia — where the gala was hosted — was full.

That hurricane victims were housed in the hotel and were causing it to turn away other potential visitors was not a problem as far as Carlo was concerned.

“If anything, it helps, because if it wasn’t for them we would have low occupancy; because at this time of the year things are slow,” he said.

According to the duty manager, Sandy victims started checking into the hotel at the beginning of November.

“They are very happy and grateful that they have a warm place to sleep with running water,” he said.

As with those persons at the neighbouring Hampton Inn, most of those at LaGuardia Plaza were from Far Rockaway, a community located on the easternmost section of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. Their hotel accommodation is paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which is akin to Jamaica’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. In order to qualify for the programme, called Transitional Sheltering Assistance, individuals and households have to register with FEMA, pass identity verification, live in an area designated as a disaster zone and for which shelter assistance is approved, and prove that they have been displaced as a result of the particular disaster.

They are initially approved for a month then are reviewed every two weeks. Depending on the extent of the damage done to their houses and the progress of the repairs, they are granted extensions.

According to the FEMA website http://www.fema.gov/disaster/4085, up to Friday afternoon, the agency had approved 101,395 applications for assistance under the Individual & Households category of the sheltering programme in New York alone. The total amount approved in this category for the state, but not necessarily disbursed, was in excess of US$754 million.

Assistance under other categories nears a billion dollars with total housing assistance approved at more than US$689 million.

“In the one month since President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in New York for Hurricane Sandy, the federal government has contributed more than US$1 billion to help New Yorkers, their communities, and the state with disaster-related needs, as well as assigning equipment and supplies, and deploying thousands of people to assist in the response and recovery from the storm,” the website says.

It quoted Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne thus: “FEMA and our federal and state partners are committed to the recovery and rebuilding of New York. We will remain on the ground until the job is finished. We’ve been on it and we’re staying on it.”

Superstorm Sandy was so named because of its extratropical nature which took it from the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean all the way up the US’s eastern seaboard. It affected Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, more than 20 US states and parts of Canada killing 182 people. People reported having as much as 12 feet of water flood their homes.

“You hear the stories and you feel for (the victims),” Jarrett said. “They lost everything, they lost memories. You can buy and replace the personal things, but some things can’t be bought.

But the situation is taking a toll on those affected. One man who was observed at breakfast at Hampton Inn one morning was overheard saying he had been there too long.

“It’s so uncertain. It’s like their future is hanging in the balance,” Jarrett said, making reference to FEMA’s temporary housing programme and its biweekly review.

She related the case of a woman and her children who were housed at her hotel. The woman, she said, was not informed by FEMA ahead of the scheduled check-out date (usually on Saturdays) whether her stay would have been extended or not. Not wanting to be kicked out on the street, the woman went and found a rental apartment. After moving in with her children and their clothes, she was told that she got an extension.

“One [elderly] guest has been through so much. Earlier this year her husband passed away in an accident. Then there was Sandy,” the Hampton Inn manager continued. “She’s alone. She stayed home even after the storm with no water, no power, nothing. When she called to ask if we had space she said she didn’t know how she was going to make it, but we offered to pick her up.

“She lost everything, all the pictures and all the memories, everything, but she says ‘I may have lost everything, but at least I’m still here’.

“She left me a handwritten note to say thanks. After working so many long hours people like her make it all worthwhile,” said Jarrett.

In addition to the transitional housing, FEMA offers a range of other types of assistance. Other government agencies are also providing support. Among them are the US Small Business Administration, which has disaster loans for both individuals and businesses, the Department of Health and Human Services which is offering grants for behavioural health support, and the US Department of Agriculture which is distributing food and additional Supplement Nutrition Assistance Programme benefits to affected households.

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