Hous­ing ex­tended for 1,700 Puerto Ri­can hur­ri­cane evac­uees

South Florida Times - - BUSINESS - By As­so­ci­ated Press


BOS­TON (AP) - A judge or­dered fed­eral emer­gency of­fi­cials to ex­tend vouch­ers for tem­po­rary ho­tel hous­ing for nearly 1,700 Puerto Ri­can hur­ri­cane evac­uees, say­ing end­ing the pro­gram could cause ir­repara­ble harm.

Satur­day night's de­ci­sion came shortly af­ter civil rights group Lati­noJus­tice PRLDEF filed a law­suit seek­ing re­lief for the Puerto Ri­cans, whose fed­eral hous­ing as­sis­tance vouch­ers were set to ex­pire at mid­night Sun­day, mean­ing the evac­uees could have been evicted from the ho­tels.

The or­der says the agency can­not end its Tran­si­tional Shel­ter­ing As­sis­tance pro­gram un­til at least mid­night on Tues­day. The or­ga­ni­za­tion is push­ing to let fam­i­lies stay an­other six months.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Leo Sorokin of Mas­sachusetts wrote that end­ing the pro­gram would drain other pub­lic re­sources. He also said the ev­i­dence showed prob­lems with the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency's ef­forts to no­tify and pro­vide tran­si­tional help for the hur­ri­cane refugees. “The ir­repara­ble harm to the plain­tiffs is ob­vi­ous and over­whelm­ing; to­mor­row morn­ing they will be evicted and home­less since by def­i­ni­tion each plain­tiff's home was ren­dered un­in­hab­it­able by the hur­ri­cane in Puerto Rico,'' he wrote in his de­ci­sion.

FEMA de­clined to com­ment on the law­suit, but the Or­lando Sen­tinel re­ports the agency con­firmed it was work­ing to no­tify ho­tels to ex­tend the aid un­til July 5 to com­ply with the or­der. A spokeswoman also said the agency was ex­tend­ing trans­porta­tion aid un­til Au­gust 30 to cover travel costs for fam­i­lies who wish to re­turn to the is­land.

Keith Turi, a FEMA ad­min­is­tra­tor for the pro­gram, said in a video news re­lease that the agency is work­ing with state and lo­cal of­fi­cials and vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tions to find as­sis­tance for the evac­uees and will help pay for a flight home.

Craig J. de Re­cat is a part­ner with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the law firm work­ing pro bono with Lati­noJus­tice on the suit.

He said evac­uees had not been in­formed prop­erly of the end of the pro­gram. He said most evac­uees found out about the ter­mi­na­tion of hous­ing from their ho­tels, or from watch­ing tele­vi­sion _ not di­rectly from FEMA.

He said a hear­ing is planned for Mon­day to see if the re­strain­ing or­der should be ex­tended.

The Puerto Ri­cans came to Florida and Mas­sachusetts af­ter last year's Hur­ri­cane Maria, a Cat­e­gory 4 storm that dev­as­tated the U.S. is­land. It caused more than $100 bil­lion in dam­age when it hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, and the is­land is still strug­gling to re­cover. Tens of thou­sands of busi­nesses closed af­ter peo­ple fled to the U.S. main­land.

In Mas­sachusetts, 338 dis­placed house­holds are still be­ing shel­tered, with 222 in through the FEMA pro­gram.

Florida Demo­cratic Sen. Bill Nel­son said Satur­day that FEMA could ex­tend the pro­gram un­der cur­rent law. He said a sim­i­lar ex­ten­sion oc­curred more than a decade ago af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina caused thou­sands from Louisiana to flee to Texas.

Nel­son and Demo­cratic mem­bers of the Florida Leg­is­la­ture said of­fi­cials have told them the is­land re­mains too dev­as­tated to take back evac­uees who re­main on the main­land. There are few jobs, they said.

At a Su­per 8 in Or­lando, there were up to 33 fam­i­lies stay­ing at the mo­tel in mid-May.

One of its oc­cu­pants, 49year-old Liz­beth Cruz, says she's not go­ing back to Puerto Rico, say­ing she doesn't trust the govern­ment to deal with an­other dis­as­ter. She didn't know about the FEMA aid so she paid out of pocket for her ho­tels when she first ar­rived af­ter the hur­ri­cane.

“I spent all my sav­ings,'' she told the Or­lando Sen. tinel .

She car­ries around a small note­book filled with pages of hand-writ­ten ad­dresses in nearby coun­ties with leas­ing of­fice phone num­bers, price ranges and an­no­ta­tions: Call back. Visit in per­son. Not avail­able.

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