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Sandy refugees say life in tent city feels like prison

Residents displaced by Hurricane Sandy wait in a line for food and clothing distribution in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, November 9, 20
Residents displaced by Hurricane Sandy wait in a line for food and clothing distribution in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, November 9, 20

By Michelle Conlin

OCEANPORT, New Jersey (Reuters) - It is hard to sleep at night inside the tent city at Oceanport, New Jersey. A few hundred Superstorm Sandy refugees have been living here since Wednesday - a muddy camp that is a sprawling anomaly amidst Mercedes Benz dealerships and country clubs in this town near the state's devastated coastal region.

Inside the giant billowy white tents, the massive klieg lights glare down from the ceiling all night long. The air is loud with the buzz of generators pumping out power. The post-storm housing — a refugee camp on the grounds of the Monmouth Park racetrack - is in lockdown, with security guards at every door, including the showers.

No one is allowed to go anywhere without showing their I.D. Even to use the bathroom, "you have to show your badge," said Amber Decamp, a 22-year-old whose rental was washed away in Seaside Heights, New Jersey.

The mini city has no cigarettes, no books, no magazines, no board games, no TVs, and no newspapers or radios. On Friday night, in front of the mess hall, which was serving fried chicken and out-of-the-box, just-add-water potatoes, a child was dancing and dancing — to nothing. "We're starting to lose it," said Decamp. "But we have nowhere else to go."

The tent city is emblematic of the crisis left by Sandy: the tens of thousands of people who have no place to live. Some are without power and heat - even if the utilities have their power back, their electrics and heating systems in their homes may have been destroyed by the floods. They are the short-termers. Others have a longer-term problem - their houses were made completely uninhabitable by flooding, ripped apart, or burned to the ground. And they pose a far more daunting challenge.

For now, all are without homes in one of the harshest housing markets in the world, with low vacancy rates and high rents. "There's inventory in other parts of the country, but not here," said University of Pennsylvania Wharton School Professor Susan Wachter.

To be sure, no one has been forced to stay in the tent city. But many say they have no other immediate option.

"This is an incredibly tough situation trying to find housing for these people," said Federal Emergency Management Agency Public Affairs Manager Scott Sanders. "With winter coming, they obviously can't stay there."

FEMA has plans to bring trailers into New Jersey to increase the amount of temporary housing.

While FEMA is helping at the tent city, it is being run by the state of New Jersey. The state's Department of Human Services did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Saturday morning.

Brad Gair, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's new emergency housing czar, has also talked about the complexities of post-disaster housing. The authorities in the region simply don't have access to enough alternative housing or hotel rooms for all those who have been displaced. And all the problems this creates are on display here, where life has been even worse than during the storm, evacuees say.

BLANKETS AND PARKAS

One reason: the information blackout. Outside of the tightly guarded community on Friday, word was spreading that the Department of Human Services would aim to move residents to the racetrack clubhouse on Saturday. The news came after photos of people bundled in blankets and parkas inside the tents circulated in the media.

But inside the tent city, which has room for thousands but was only sheltering a couple of hundred on Friday, no one had heard anything about a move - or about anything else. "They treat us like we're prisoners," says Ashley Sabol, 21, of Seaside Heights, New Jersey. "It's bad to say, but we honestly feel like we're in a concentration camp."

Sabol, who is unemployed and whose rental home was washed away in the hurricane, remembers being woken up on Wednesday at the shelter she was staying in at Toms River High School. Conditions there were "actually fine," said Sabol.

Sabol was told that she had half an hour to pack: everyone was getting shipped to hotels in Wildwood, New Jersey, where they would be able to re-acquaint themselves with showers, beds and a door.

Sabol and about 50 other people boarded a New Jersey Transit bus, which drove around, seemingly aimlessly, for hours. Worse, this week's Nor'easter snow storm was gathering force, lashing the bus with wind and rain.

After four hours, the bus driver pulled into a dirt parking lot. The passengers were expecting a hotel with heat and maybe even a restaurant. Instead they saw a mini city of portable toilets and voluminous white tents with their flaps snapping in the wind. Inside, they got sheets, a rubbery pillow, a cot and one blanket.

There was no heat that night, and as temperatures dropped to freezing, people could start to see their breath. The gusts of wind blew snow and slush onto Sabol's face as her cot was near the open tent flaps. She shivered. Her hands turned purple.

It has taken three days for the tents to get warm.

Power workers from out of state who are helping utilities restore electricity to the area were starting to bed down in the tent city, too. Some empty vodka bottles appeared on the muddy street. There were now far more men than women or children, and the women said it was impossible not to notice the leering of some men.

Brian Skorupski, a manager with Tolland, Connecticut-based Asplundh Line Construction, had just rolled in with 50 workers, who were there to help restore power. Skorupski is used to his house in the suburbs. He missed his king-sized bed with his Hotel Collection sheets. "The only thing worse than this is sleeping in your truck," he said.

(Editing by Martin Howell and Vicki Allen)

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