WNPR

With End Of FEMA Aid Nearing, Hurricane Evacuees Face Uncertainty About Their Future On The Mainland

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Brian Rivera was finishing breakfast in the lobby of the Red Room Inn in downtown Hartford. He’s been living there with his wife and two toddlers since December. And he didn’t know yet if he’d have to move out soon.

So he went up to the front desk and asked. The receptionist had good news: his stay at the hotel had been extended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency until March 20.

Rivera was relieved.

“It feels good because I was worried about it, what I was gonna do with my kids, if I didn’t find something,” he said. “But, I hope, I can find something really fast. I’m moving every day to see what I can find.”

Rivera said life at the hotel is better than it was in Humacao, Puerto Rico. He and his family had to sleep on air mattresses after the hurricane flooded their house. But he said it’s still difficult living for so long in a small hotel room with no kitchen.

“If I can go today -- I would leave today right now,” he said.

Rivera said he’s working to move out as soon as he can. He wants to restart his family’s life here in Hartford. He found a job at a car wash, and they have an application in for an apartment.

Rivera is one of close to 11,000 Puerto Ricans who have been living hotels and motels after Hurricane Maria hit the island under FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program -- or TSA. As of mid-January, the program has cost FEMA about $21 million.

Sam Harvey manages FEMA’s TSA program. He said FEMA has inspected most of the homes belonging to the families losing their aid. And those inspections showed the majority of houses weren’t significantly damaged, and had their utilities turned back on.

“This type of assistance is only intended to be temporary, and it’s only intended for those who have no other option,” Harvey said.

But he said families can appeal the results of their inspection if they dispute FEMA’s findings.

Last week, FEMA called around 200 of those families to tell them they were no longer eligible for aid. They have until this Thursday to find another place to live.

That’s on top of another 600 families who had to leave their hotel rooms last month.

That includes Wanda Ortiz. She said the same day she learned that her family had to leave her hotel room in Hartford -- she got the keys to her new apartment.

Ortiz said things started to fall into place after her daughter got a job here as a nurse. A local nonprofit helped with their security deposit and first month’s rent.  

Speaking through a translator, she said she’s worried about the other families still living at the hotel.

“I saw a lot of depressed people, a lot of sad people, who are not coping with the situation,” Ortiz said.

Several dozen Puerto Rican families living in hotels across Connecticut were expected to lose their aid this week. But state officials say they’ll pay for 19 of those families until the end of the month -- and that six other families received extensions from FEMA.

On Monday, the Hartford Foundation announced it would give $200,000 to the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut to assist hurricane evacuees facing homelessness.