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Despite eviction reprieve, Puerto Rican hurricane evacuees face uncertainty and fear

Dagmar Rivera paused while packing her belongings in the Tewksbury hotel room where she has been staying. “What if they come tomorrow and tell me that I have to go?” she said.
Dagmar Rivera paused while packing her belongings in the Tewksbury hotel room where she has been staying. “What if they come tomorrow and tell me that I have to go?” she said.Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

NEW BEDFORD — One day after a judge approved a temporary halt to evictions for Puerto Ricans living in Massachusetts and other states in the wake of Hurricane Maria, families faced confusion and frustration Sunday as they struggled to figure out their next move.

Many hurricane evacuees were unaware that a federal judge in Springfield late Saturday night had granted a temporary injunction to stop the Federal Emergency Management Agency from ending its transitional assistance housing program for evacuees until midnight Tuesday.

Some hotel operators also apparently didn’t receive word of the injunction. Some Puerto Rican families still faced evictions on Sunday morning, prompting a rush of phone calls to lawyers and other advocates.

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“What we are looking for is some clarification — what should these folks do today as they are checking out at their current hotels?” Jose Lopez, president-elect of the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys, said in a telephone interview Sunday morning. “Right now, we’re losing people and don’t know where they are going.”

In a statement posted to Twitter Sunday, FEMA spokesman William Booher said the agency will comply with the judge’s temporary order and will extend the program until July 5.

But at the New Bedford Inn & Suites on Sunday, some evacuees were bewildered by their plight.

“We took out all our luggage, brought everything downstairs, we did a check-out, and there we were until close to noon waiting for a bus that never came,” Veronica Duran, 31, who had been living at the hotel with her three children since May, said on Sunday in Spanish.

Duran’s family, along with two other families and a single woman, were told by hotel staff to leave the hotel early Sunday morning, she said.

“We don’t know anything. We haven’t received any calls from any company telling us what’s going on. Nothing. Nobody has called us.”

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The scene was much the same in Tewksbury, where Dagmar Rivera said she learned of the temporary reprieve as she prepared to check out Sunday morning from an Extended Stay America hotel.

Still Rivera, who laid awake worrying Saturday night, won’t rest easy.

“I’m going to keep packing,” Rivera, 42, said in Spanish. “What if they come tomorrow and tell me that I have to go?”

Rivera said she found it ironic that as an American citizen, she could be packing her bags on Wednesday, the Fourth of July. “What makes me laugh is that I was born here,” said Rivera, who was born in New York but had been living in Puerto Rico. “My own country . . . doesn’t want to help me.”

Some clarity for evacuees could come on Monday. A telephone hearing is scheduled to be held on the temporary order issued Saturday night by US District Court Judge Leo Sorokin.

Sorokin granted the injunction based on a last-minute filing by the civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, seeking relief for hurricane victims, whose FEMA vouchers were originally set to expire at midnight Saturday.

In his ruling, Sorokin said that “irreparable harm” could come to evacuees if they were evicted because “by definition each plaintiff’s home was rendered uninhabitable by the hurricane in Puerto Rico.”

The ruling applied to 1,763 families staying in hotels in 30 states and Puerto Rico, including 222 households in Massachusetts. (Separately, 116 households are receiving aid in Massachusetts through a state-funded Red Cross program that is not affected by the ruling.)

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Since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico last September, FEMA has spent more than $84 million on temporary housing assistance for people forced out of their homes, a spokesman said.

“Following the court order late last night, hours before program cessation, FEMA issued a public statement on the extension and worked throughout the day today to provide the vendor who administers the program on behalf of FEMA with new terms and conditions and have it posted within their system to update participating hotels,” Booher said in an e-mail to the Globe.

Booher said any evacuee who has questions or issues should call FEMA’s help line at 800-621-FEMA or TTY 800-462-7585.

Senator Elizabeth Warren vowed Sunday to push FEMA to drop its eviction plan.

A spokeswoman for Warren’s office said the office has been in contact with FEMA regarding one eviction case, and urged anyone forced from a hotel to reach out to her Massachusetts office.

“It shouldn’t take a court order to get FEMA to do the right thing — and it must now act swiftly to prevent evacuees from being evicted,” Warren said in a statement to the Globe.

The fear and uncertainty felt by evacuees played out at the New Bedford hotel.

Duran said one family left around 7 a.m. after being evicted by the staff. Duran’s family was among those who checked out of the hotel, but remained in the lobby because they believed a bus would take them to another hotel funded by the state.

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Even after the bus didn’t arrive, they remained at the hotel for more than two hours on the advice of Lopez, Duran said. After his urging, a hotel clerk agreed to let the families stay until Monday, Lopez said.

A worker at the hotel Sunday declined to comment to a Globe reporter.

“I was only able to reach a family at the hotel because someone gave me their phone number,” Lopez said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known about it.”

Mayra Garcia, 48, who gathered with other evacuees in the hotel’s lobby, was angry about a lack of communication.

“No one has called us,” Garcia said. “The hotel even offered to have us leave our things here and come back tomorrow to pick them up, but where are we going to go?”


Globe correspondent J.D. Capelouto contributed to this report. Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra. John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.