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New York City defends excess emergency hotel rooms

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (L) and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) arrive at a joint news conference on the Hurricane Sandy Federa
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (L) and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) arrive at a joint news conference on the Hurricane Sandy Federa

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday defended the city's decision to pay for more than 1,000 hotel rooms, including hundreds that remain vacant, for residents whose homes were destroyed or made unlivable by Superstorm Sandy.

The mayor's comments followed a Wall Street Journal report that at one hotel near Times Square, the Milford Plaza, 120 rooms reserved at a nightly rate of $295 have gone unused, racking up a tab of nearly $1 million.

"It shows that we have the courage to do something that no one has had the courage to do. We've gotten housing for people in case they might need it. But the wonderful thing is, we haven't needed it so far," Bloomberg said.

Julie Wood, a Bloomberg spokeswoman, said at least 1,000 residents have been put up in hotels, and said the city has also arranged for a "buffer of rooms" to house people who have no heat or electricity.

The housing crisis has grown more urgent as freezing temperatures and at least two snowstorms have hit the region.

Wood said it was necessary to book hundreds of rooms in advance as the city heads into the holiday season, the time of year when hotels are busiest. The city expects the cost of the hotel rooms to be picked up by FEMA, she said.

"In New York City, we don't have a lot of housing stock that's vacant ... or a lot of vacant land to set up trailers," she said. "There is a shortage of hotel rooms, and we were concerned that if we could not book them, they would be gone."

She said there is no rule book on how to address housing needs resulting from storms. After Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, people were housed on a cruise ship, in trailers and in hotels as far away as New York, she added.

FEMA spokeswoman Denise Everheart said the agency would reimburse the city for emergency housing costs as long as the city can show the expenditures were necessary to keep people safe and that the cost was reasonable.

"We are definitely going to consider these expenses. ... The city can provide justification," she said.

(Reporting By Edith Honan; Editing by Dan Burns and Stacey Joyce)

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