By Gal Tziperman Lotan
A federal judge on Thursday denied a request to extend a program that let Puerto Rican people who left their homes after Hurricane Maria stay in hotels.
People still staying in taxpayer-funded hotels and motels under the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Transitional Shelter Assistance program, commonly called TSA, will be allowed to stay until Sept. 14, U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman wrote.
"While this is the result that I am compelled to find, it is not necessarily the right result. However, the Court cannot order that Defendants to do that which in a humanitarian and caring world should be done -- it can only order the Defendants to do that which the law requires," Hillman wrote. "...I strongly urge the parties to work together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the Plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date."
Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, as a Category 4 storm. Gov. Ricardo Rossello this week raised the official death toll from the storm and its aftermath to 2,975 people, citing a study from the the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.
Hillman's decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by advocacy organizations LatinoJustice and Vamos4PR, as well as families displaced after the hurricane, claiming FEMA and other authorities should keep assisting people affected by the storm. The hotel vouchers program was set to expire at the end of June, but Hillman agreed to extend it as he weighed the plaintiffs' claims. The lawsuit is still active, but Hillman's order Thursday ends the extension for the hotel voucher program.
"While disappointing, today's decision highlights the fact that FEMA has not provided survivors of Hurricane Maria with the housing assistance needed in order to rebuild their lives as evacuees," Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, associate counsel at LatinoJustice, said in a statement. "We hope that as the agency mandated to provide such relief to those who have suffered great harm and trauma, they will take the court up on its call to provide a morally correct outcome for TSA recipients."
There are 322 families in Florida still enrolled in the program as of Thursday, said Dasha Castillo Gomez, a spokeswoman for FEMA. That number has been nearly cut in half since June 30, the program's deadline before the lawsuit was filed, when there were 617 families enrolled, Castillo Gomez said.
"FEMA is working with its vendor and notifying participating hotels that the TSA program has been extended to comply with the court's order. Beyond that, FEMA will not comment on pending litigation," Castillo Gomez said. "The TSA program is designed to bridge survivors from large group sheltering situations to interim or long-term housing options that are provided by FEMA, other federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and the private sector."
Central Florida accepted an influx of Puerto Ricans after the storm, though there is no exact count of how many people moved from the island to Florida in the last 11 months.
Rev. José Rodríguez, a steering committee member of the organization VAMOS4PR, said families still enrolled in the program could "end up homeless" if they can't find other arrangements in the next two weeks.
"Families that remain in the hotels are the ones with the least resources, and these families have suffered tremendously from the callous disregard of federal authorities, in particular FEMA, which has toyed with their lives again and again," Rodríguez said.
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto said the decision was "very disappointing news."
"However, the real issue is [President Donald] Trump's failure to timely and adequately respond and fund disaster relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria," Soto said in a statement.
(c)2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)