Puerto Ricans still stranded six months after storm
From the lobby of a hotel on the outskirts of Boston, Jesenia Flores fills out an online job application, hoping to find work to get her small family back to normal for the first time since Hurricane Maria flooded their home in Puerto Rico.
The hotel along the interstate has been a refuge for her and other Puerto Rican families, but it's frustrating "to be cooped up here without knowing what will happen to us," the 19-year-old mother said as her 15-month-old son squirmed and cried in her lap.
Danaliz Pujol is staying in a hotel, too, near Orlando, Florida. She and her husband are trying to find an affordable apartment to replace the one in Puerto Rico damaged in the storm and then rented to someone else after they fled to the mainland. She looks every day, "but there's nothing," she said.
And then there is Carmen Acosta, who longs to go home from the hotel where she has been living in Puerto Rico with 40 families displaced by the storm. She received $4,000 from the federal government to repair her nearby house, but the work has been slow because it includes removing black mold quickly spreading in the tropical heat.
Nearly six months after the storm, almost 10,000 Puerto Ricans scattered across 37 states and the U.S. territory still receive temporary housing assistance. The help has been renewed repeatedly, but it's now scheduled to end for everyone March 20.
Without financial support, they will have nowhere to go, many storm victims say.
"I could end up on the street just as I'm trying to get back on my feet," said Pujol, 23, who earns money by cleaning hotel rooms. Her husband is disabled and cannot work.
Dozens of Puerto Ricans expressed similar fears as the deadline loomed. Many are poor, living on fixed incomes or getting by in low-wage jobs. They have no relatives who can help or savings to fall back on, and they did not own their homes.
Some like Flores struggle to find work because they don't speak English well. Others have children with special medical or educational needs.
"To start all over again is really hard," said Ivette Ramirez, whose home in the Puerto Rican city of Bayamon was flooded by the worst storm to strike the island in decades. The restaurant where she and her husband worked was destroyed. She is now staying in a hotel in Dedham, Massachusetts, with aid from FEMA.
So far, FEMA has provided $113 million in rental assistance to 129,000 people who were in Maria's path across the island. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has asked for the deadline to be extended to May 14, and the government says it is reviewing the request.
Nonprofit groups, churches and state and local governments have also provided temporary housing help and other forms of support to the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who fled to the mainland in the aftermath of the Sept. 20 storm.
Several Massachusetts groups helped Maria Reyes when her FEMA hotel assistance ended after two months. She was able to move from one hotel near Boston to another while caring for her 7-year-old grandson.
Her former home in San Juan public housing has been deemed habitable, but she wants to stay on the mainland to get better medical care. She doesn't know how long she will be able to stay in this hotel, or where she will go next.
"I can't live like this with a little kid," the 55-year-old said. "I need more time. I need God to hear me."