Hurricane Maria evacuees up against deadline to leave temporary housing

1,524 families staying in FEMA-approved hotels

By Adrianna Iwasinski - Investigative Reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. - Rosemary Martinez and her 4-year-old son Jayden have been living in an Apopka motel for weeks.

Everything they were able to take with them when they fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is inside the small room that was already crowded with two queen beds.

Martinez shares the room with her cousin, who also has nowhere else to go. But Martinez says they would rather be cramped in a small motel room than in their hurricane-ravaged home.

"Because it’s not safe out there," Martinez said. "It's destroyed everywhere."

It has been almost five months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Isles. The Category 5 hurricane left many people on the island with no power, no food, and no way to recover. Some Puerto Rican families left everything they had behind to start a new life here in Florida. But now thousands of them are left wondering where they will live long term.

"I've been looking everywhere," said Martinez. "And everything is just so expensive."

On Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be re-evaluating who will be allowed to stay in the motels and hotels covered by its Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. The program's vouchers have been used by displaced families to pay for rooms at participating hotels across greater Orlando.

According to FEMA, as of Feb. 6 there were about 200 families found to be ineligible for FEMA's TSA program that were staying in hotels and motels in 40 states and Puerto Rico because officials determined that their homes had been restored to livable conditions.

Rosemary can still vividly remember what it was like when the Category 5 hurricane made landfall on the island.

"That was horrible," she told us as she held back tears. "I thought we were going to die to be honest."

In the aftermath of Maria, Martinez says that for a full month, she and her son lived without power, and with limited access to food and water. Puerto Rico was falling into chaos.

"Everyone was just taking everything," she told News 6. "So I just decided to leave. I couldn't take it anymore."


Central Florida: Ground Zero for Displaced Puerto Ricans

According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, more than 375,000 individuals have traveled commercially to Florida from Puerto Rico through the state's three major airports.

As of Jan. 25, there were a total of 1,524 families staying in FEMA-approved hotels in Florida alone.

Martinez says she feels lucky to have this place for the three of them. She is beyond grateful that FEMA has provided temporary hotel assistance to her and her son, and to the thousands of other Hurricane Maria evacuees. But now she worries where they will go once FEMA stops paying for the room.

“I really need it,” said Martinez. “I haven’t found nothing yet.”

Back in December, Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, asked FEMA to extend the temporary shelter program to March 20.

And any extension would be handled on a case-by-case basis upon review. FEMA states more than 10,000 Puerto Ricans have checked into hotels through the program since it was approved. That includes hotels across the United States and in Puerto Rico.

According to FEMA, the shelter assistance program is only one of several short-term housing options being offered, allowing eligible disaster survivors to shelter in a hotel or motel, for a limited period of time. This is a bridge to other longer-term housing solutions, FEMA supports disaster survivors in their recovery process with many different housing programs. But they state survivors are responsible for their own recovery -- and to actively look for permanent housing solutions.

A FEMA spokesperson states the situation remains fluid and changes daily, with people continuing to come in from Puerto Rico needing temporary housing, and others leaving as they find more permanent places to live.

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