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The feds owe Puerto Rican evacuees safe shelter

Yenita Rodriguez, 26, and her two children, Yelianis, 1, and Yelismary, 3, arrived from Puerto Rico on Jan. 24 with $400. She is staying at a hotel in Dedham.John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe

José Luis Anaya and his family have been living in the Quality Inn in West Springfield for two months. They arrived in Massachusetts from Guayama, Puerto Rico, after the home they rented flooded and most of the houses in their neighborhood were leveled; their home sustained so much damage during Hurricane Maria that it became uninhabitable.

“Our main issue was that our daughters have asthma, and one of them had terrible skin sores because of the mosquitoes,” said Anaya. “Their school had no power, and the environmental conditions were just terrible for them.” The town also had no potable water.

The island, and the American citizens who live there, have been largely ignored by President Trump, and the response of the federal bureaucracy has been sluggish. Now people like the Anayas face arbitrary FEMA deadlines and unrealistic rules that may force thousands of families back into unlivable housing.


The Anayas, a family of four, first fled to Holyoke in early December. A family acquaintance in the area connected them to local resources and, eventually, to FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, which placed them in the hotel.

The Anayas are one of the 600 families or individuals, as of Tuesday, using FEMA’s transitional shelter benefit in Massachusetts, second most in the country after Florida. FEMA assesses the eligibility of those in the program by conducting inspections of their homes back in Puerto Rico. Some recipients have been told their homes are fine, when the reality is far different. “Some inspectors would only look at the outside of the house, missing conditions inside. The walls in our home had huge black mold stains, and the mold had a fuzz, like hair!” said Anaya, whose home back in Guayama initially passed the inspection, a finding that endangered their benefits. (They were eventually accepted again, for a different reason — their landlord sold that home.) Families can appeal such FEMA home eligibility determinations, but the agency has been slow to process those appeals.


Now, though, the Anayas, along with most other Puerto Ricans in the program — over 10,000 people, almost 4,000 families, in motels and hotels in 42 states — face a new threat. Many, including the Anayas, will lose their benefits March 20. For about 200 of those households, their assistance will expire as early as this week.

Yet most victims will not be able to return to Puerto Rico, because it’s unlikely their homes will be suitable for living any time soon.

Why are these refugees facing arbitrary FEMA deadlines? No one has a satisfying answer.

A FEMA spokesperson said the housing assistance was always meant to be temporary, “just a transitional program” to help victims get permanent housing. But for too many Puerto Ricans, there’s nothing safe or livable to transition to. Even as power has been slowly restored throughout the island, there was a widespread blackout last Sunday. Most schools are open, but some don’t have power. Perhaps more tragically, Puerto Rico was already dealing with an housing crisis even before Maria hit. About half of the island’s 3.4 million people were living in “informal homes,” either in illegally built structures or squatting.

It’s been reported that the Puerto Rican government has requested further housing assistance for evacuees from FEMA, given how inadequate the federal aid has been. Such extra assistance could take the form of the agency’s direct lease program, which could pay up to 18 months of rent for eligible victims. The Trump administration has already let down Puerto Rican victims of the hurricane. Finding a way to shelter victims until their homes are genuinely livable is the least the federal government owes them now.