For Puerto Rican Storm Evacuees, Another Moving Day Looms

Puerto Rican families on Saturday packed their belongings and prepared to leave a Super 8 motel in Kissimmee, Fla., where they have been living since fleeing Hurricane Maria.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — It was moving day at a Super 8 motel in this city of strip malls, not far from the hubbub of Disney World. Minivans and S.U.V.s lined the parking lot on Saturday, as families in flip-flops packed the few things they had accumulated since fleeing Hurricane Maria nine months ago: a purple folding chair, a hot plate, a hamper full of laundry.

The checkout deadline loomed. By 11 a.m. Sunday, most of the few dozen Puerto Ricans who for months have called this motel home expected to be gone, unable to afford the nightly room rate of about $60 without help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s temporary sheltering assistance program, which had paid for their stays until now, was scheduled to end Saturday night.

But late Saturday, the evacuees received a reprieve. A federal judge stayed their departures until at least Tuesday. A civil rights advocacy organization, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, filed a class-action lawsuit Saturday afternoon seeking to stop FEMA from ending its temporary shelter assistance for displaced hurricane victims from Puerto Rico, saying it would put evacuees “at risk of homelessness and other irreparable injury.”

A hearing will be Monday, and evacuees can effectively remain in their accommodations until checkout time Wednesday.

Most of the displaced Puerto Ricans have already moved on to apartments of their own, according to FEMA. But not all of them. Those moving out now say they will miss not only the federal aid, but the community they formed among their fellow survivors. Few plan to go back to the storm-damaged island.

“When I came here, I didn’t know anybody,” said David Olmeda, 26, as he and his wife folded clothing into suitcases to take to their newly rented apartment down the road. “Now, we’re a family.”

Florida had the highest number of Maria evacuees still relying on temporary sheltering assistance as of Friday, according to FEMA: 589 displaced families, out of the 1,744 across the country, including some inside Puerto Rico. Most of the evacuees in Florida settled in Central Florida, including in the heavily Puerto Rican enclave of Kissimmee, just south of Orlando.

About 56 percent of Puerto Ricans who arrived in Florida before and after the hurricane plan to stay “indefinitely,” according to a survey released Saturday by Florida International University. The survey, which interviewed 1,000 Puerto Ricans in the state, also found that about 90 percent of respondents had received some public assistance.

Most cited Puerto Rico’s tough economic conditions as the reason for leaving, with 61 percent saying they had been able to find work. Just 11 percent specifically cited the hurricane.

The Central Florida families affected by Saturday’s FEMA deadline were scattered across town, many of them in the motels that line Route 192, a long drag of fast-food joints, souvenir shops and gas stations en route to Disney World. Just off the same highway is the purple Magic Castle Inn, the setting for “The Florida Project” — a movie about, yes, a family living in a motel.

The Super 8, nestled between a coin laundry and an IHOP, has become the community’s focal point. Its open layout lends itself to socializing, and a common room in the lobby, outfitted with a few tables and a coffee machine, brings guests together in the mornings for breakfast and in the evenings to chat.

Television news crews regularly come by for interviews. Politicians frequently drop in. Representative Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat who was the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from Florida, visited Friday evening. One of his aides held office hours at the motel on Saturday, as a World Cup match between Uruguay and Portugal played in the background.

By then, it had become clear that FEMA, which has extended the temporary shelter assistance three times, would not offer any such relief, despite pleas from Mr. Soto and other Democrats, including Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. Mr. Nelson urged FEMA to activate a separate disaster housing assistance program to provide rent subsidies to families, as the agency did after Hurricane Katrina until 2009.

Lenisha Smith, a FEMA spokeswoman, said there was “no need” for that aid because another program, called direct lease assistance, provides similar services “without the additional complexities and red tape.” However, critics like Christiaan Perez, a spokesman for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, say direct lease is too narrow to benefit most of the needy Puerto Rican families.

The group sued Saturday in federal court in Massachusetts, which has the highest population of families receiving temporary sheltering assistance after Florida and Puerto Rico. Federal District Judge Leo T. Sorokin issued a limited temporary restraining order in the case late Saturday.

FEMA has spent more than $84 million on temporary sheltering assistance for Puerto Rican evacuees of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Ms. Smith said.

With little hope to stay in their motel rooms — and no interest in taking FEMA up on free airfare back to Puerto Rico by Sunday — the Super 8 families prepared on Saturday to say goodbye. At least two families were headed to board a bus to Ohio; a recent local job fair featuring Ohio companies, including an auto parts manufacturer, resulted in several job offers.

Others, like Mr. Olmeda, found apartments locally after extensive searching. His wife, Christine González, 26, said her husband would come home at 6 a.m. from his overnight shift at the Home Depot, sleep until 8 a.m., and spend the rest of the day hunting for a place to rent. The hurricane blew away their home in Cayey, the couple said; they found their infant son’s crib strewn on the street outside.

“We’re not going back,” Ms. González, who is working for a local advocacy group, said as she scooped up her son, Kahil, who is now 1. “Things in Puerto Rico are still bad.”

Manny Ayala, director of community engagement for the local Episcopal Office of Latino Assistance, said his agency, which continues to staff a disaster relief center and steer families to a monthly food pantry, sees new Puerto Rican families every week.

“They don’t know the public transportation system. They don’t know the language. They don’t know about food stamps,” he said. “They don’t know that you pay car insurance monthly.”

Public housing units have long wait lists. Many evacuees have trouble affording a security deposit and first and last month’s rent, as well as condo background checks and application fees.

“I’m crazy to go back, but my daughter doesn’t want me to,” said Angela Vásquez, 83.

Her daughter, Yolanda Aguirre, said her sons, ages 19 and 14, don’t want to return. The 19-year-old found a job at Disney, she said, and her husband is working at an AutoZone. They found an apartment.

“You can’t expect the government to be giving you everything,” Ms. Aguirre said, adding that the family was very grateful for FEMA’s assistance.

Some Puerto Ricans were hesitant to talk about their precarious financial situations, fearing backlash from Puerto Ricans on the island who question their dependence on public assistance, they said.

“People on Facebook say we Puerto Ricans are begging to the government,” said Luz González, 41. “‘How nice it must be to be on vacation for seven months.’ We’re not at the pool. We’re not at Disney.”

Boricuas criticizing boricuas,” lamented her mother, Guadalupe Berdecía, 61, using a Spanish term for Puerto Ricans.

Ms. Berdecía said she had arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes and thyroid problems. Ms. González stays home to help her but knows she must soon find work. On Sunday, the two will leave their motel room for an apartment with a rent of $1,310 a month. She said they were approved as tenants only after Ms. González showed them her mother’s bank statement showing $8,000 from FEMA, compensation for losing their possessions in Puerto Rico.

Cellphone pictures show the family’s home on the island shredded by the storm. Ms. González said they arrived in Florida with three pairs of pants and three shirts each. On Saturday, mother and daughter wore clothes given to them by the Red Cross. Ms. Berdecía’s shirt was blue and said “MERICA.”

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