Puerto Ricans Displaced By Hurricane Maria Can Stay In Hotels Through July 23

About 1,700 families living in hotels will be able to stay there a bit longer.
Deborah Oquendo, 42, carries her 10-month-old daughter, Genesis Rivera, at an Orlando, Florida, hotel on Dec. 1, 2017. They&n
Deborah Oquendo, 42, carries her 10-month-old daughter, Genesis Rivera, at an Orlando, Florida, hotel on Dec. 1, 2017. They joined hundreds of families forced to stay in hotels after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican families who fled the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria will be able to stay at hotels on the American mainland until at least July 23, a judge decided Tuesday.

The decision affects about 1,700 families, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman of Massachusetts extended the benefits through a restraining order temporarily preventing the Federal Emergency Management Association from ending its Transitional Sheltering Assistance program for Hurricane Maria survivors. 

The program is intended to provide survivors of natural disasters temporary relief while they seek more permanent housing solutions. FEMA said last week it had spent $432 million on the program. 

The TSA benefits were previously scheduled to run out on June 30. But the advocacy group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, with help from the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and the Law Office of Héctor Piñeiro, stepped in with a class-action complaint on behalf of evacuees.

Over the weekend, another district court judge issued a five-day extension preventing families from being kicked out of the hotels where they’ve stayed since last fall. 

Attorneys for the evacuees claimed that Hurricane Maria was “the largest natural disaster to have stricken the U.S.” and argued that FEMA’s response “has been inadequate.” While the hurricane’s official death toll on the island stands at 64, a report out of Harvard University in early June suggested the number may in fact top 4,000, in part due to residents’ limited access to electricity and clean water for months after the storm hit.

“This is not the first time FEMA has acted arbitrarily to cut off critical disaster relief to communities of color, though we hope it will be the last,” Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, an attorney for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said in a statement.

The disaster agency said in a statement that it “will continue to work with its vendor and notify hotels that the TSA program for Puerto Rico has been extended until July 23, with checkout on July 24, to comply with the Court’s order.”

The move allows attorneys on both sides more time to prepare arguments for a formal hearing, which has not been set. 

FEMA announced late last month that it had extended its Transportation Assistance program for Puerto Rican families, giving those who qualify until Aug. 30 to take advantage of travel benefits as they return to the island.