KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to extend the transitional housing program unconditionally for Hurricane Maria evacuees through May 14 buying Puerto Ricans more time, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Friday.
Hundreds of families who are staying in Florida after being displaced because of the storm risked being kicked out of their hotel rooms as soon as Friday because FEMA's temporary housing assistance program, also known as TSA, was ending.
Just after noon, Nelson announced FEMA has approved the unconditional extension. FEMA officials did not approve the extension to June 30, which was the original request from lawmakers.
"The decision means that the 600 displaced families in Florida that FEMA had planned on evicting from their hotel rooms as early as today will now be allowed to stay through at least May 14," a statement from Nelson's office read.
Still, Nelson said, that deadline is not long enough.
"A lot of these families have children in school and they wont get out of school until the first part of June," Nelson said. "The assistance ought to be extended at least until then."
Nelson says it is inexcusable the way Puerto Rico has been treated by FEMA, especially when compared to the assistance offered in both Texas and Florida.
Nelson heard from a total of six people on Friday who left Puerto Rico and are currently living in motels in Osceola County.
One of them was David Olmeda, who spoke in Spanish to Nelson, and shared his relief about the last-minute extension granted by FEMA.
Olmeda told Nelson he was able to find a job at Home Depot, but he hasn't been able to find an affordable home so right now he and his wife and child are staying at a Super 8 Motel.
One elderly Puerto Rican woman who came to the meeting said she was very worried about getting kicked out of her motel today because she did not know where she would go and where she was going to sleep.
There was also Gustavio Santiago, who spoke in English about how he arrived in Florida on Nov. 1 after leaving hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. He said he lost everything -- his house, his car, even his job since he couldn't get to work. Gustovo said he decided to come here for a new beginning, but says it has been very difficult.
"We don't want a handout, we want a hand up," Santiago said. "Help us."
Osceola County school officials and other lawmakers said they were asking for an extension to help thousands of displaced students from Puerto Rico attending Central Florida schools.
Last week, Osceola County Schools Superintendent Debra Pace urged Rosselló to ask FEMA to extend the program again to allow students from the island to finish the school year.
Nelson said he will continue to push for the extension to last through the end of the school year.
On Monday, Puerto Rican families were told that their aid would terminate as soon as Friday due to new, stricter eligibility requirements that followed recommendations from Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, according to officials at Rep. Darren Soto's office.
Rosselló sent a letter to FEMA on Wednesday seeking an unconditional 46-day extension to TSA until June 30.
"We are still in talks to receive an unconditional extension until June 30, as requested by Governor Rosselló on April 18," officials with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration said in a tweet.
Right now, some of the families are being helped by local churches and religious leaders say there are no real paying jobs in Puerto Rico. Rev. Mary Downey runs the Community Hope Center where Friday's meeting was held, she said affordable housing is a crisis in Central Florida.
"It's been an issue in Osceola County for years," Downey said. " It's one we need to alleviate. It's one where we need landlords that say, 'I've got units that are available, we want to partner with you.'"
Downey said the housing situation is so dire, that she has even considered creating housing on the 5 acre plot of land that surrounds the Community Hope Center. She said that would take time and millions of dollars, which is something she says they just don't have right now.
FEMA officials said there are 917 families currently in the TSA program staying in hotels across Florida.