ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Approaching the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria striking Puerto Rico and some evacuees are still in limbo.
- Housing vouchers for Puerto Rico residents after Hurricane Maria ending
- Many Puerto Ricans sought refuge in Florida after the storm
- More than 600 families still using vouchers, more than half in FL
Some Puerto Ricans seeking refuge in Florida are now scrambling to find housing as FEMA's temporary housing voucher program is coming to an end.
Those federal vouchers paying for hotel rooms are set to expire on Friday.
A federal judge in Massachusetts set Friday as the deadline for the vouchers to end after denying an effort to force FEMA to continue the program. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman, who expressed anguish over his decision, ended almost three months of legal challenges and extensions.
As of Tuesday, there were more than 600 families using the vouchers on the mainland, with more than half of those families in Florida. Almost 400 families were using the vouchers on the island.
FEMA hasn't done enough for the evacuees, forcing local governments and organizations to step up, advocates say.
"Now the location (the families) chose in a moment of deep urgency and disaster is affecting their ability to find housing. This is exactly what we were trying to avoid," said Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, a lawyer with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, which brought the lawsuit against FEMA.
FEMA said in a court filing last month that Puerto Rico has received $3.9 billion in assistance for Hurricane Maria, compared with $2.4 billion for Texas for Hurricane Harvey and $1.1 billion for Florida for Hurricane Irma.
In central Florida, the local United Way is offering up to $5,000 toward security deposits for some families. In New York City, more than 540 Puerto Rican evacuees are already in the city shelter system, and 30 other families may end up there after their hotel vouchers end.
Massachusetts, the state with the second largest number of evacuee families after Florida, will allow families with children and people with medical conditions to remain in hotels temporarily on the state's dime, said Gina Plata-Nino, an attorney with the Central West Justice Center.
The state will also provide rental assistance for one year to transition evacuees into more permanent housing, she said.
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, whose staffers held office hours at three central Florida hotels this week to assist evacuees, put the blame on President Donald Trump and a Republican-dominated Congress that did not pass supplemental disaster relief assistance.
"President Trump, to this day, has not acknowledged, not only the lack of resources and slow response time, but the continued issues in Puerto Rico," said Soto, a Democrat whose district covers a part of metro Orlando. "It didn't have to be this way."
Trump this week called the response to Hurricane Maria "an incredible, unsung success" and said his administration did an "underappreciated great job."
Puerto Rico's governor last month raised the U.S. territory's official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.