Hurricane-Displaced Puerto Ricans Given July 4 Marching Orders

(CN) – On the verge of forcing thousands of Puerto Ricans into homelessness, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will follow court orders to continue post-hurricane housing through the U.S. Independence Day.

Homes in the Cantera area are covered with FEMA tarps, where buildings from the Hato Rey area stand in the background in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 19, 2017. The U.S. government announced on April 10, 2018, that it would award $18.5 billion worth of disaster recovery grants to Puerto Rico to help repair homes, businesses and its crumbling power grid as the U.S. territory struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

FEMA has been providing the housing funds through the Transitional Shelter Assistance program since Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island on Sept. 20, 2017. Though the agency has twice renewed the program, its refusal to issue another extension prompted a class led by Alian Asencio to file a federal class action on June 30 — the date the program was set to expire.

Filing suit in the District of Massachusetts, Asencio and the other plaintiffs are represented by the Los Angeles law firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips; the Hector E. Pineiro Law Offices of Worcester, Massachusetts; and LatinaJustice PRLDEF in New York.

Shortly after the suit was filed, U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman noted that “irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is obvious and overwhelming.”

“Tomorrow morning they will be evicted and homeless since by definition each plaintiffs home was rendered uninhabitable by the hurricane in Puerto Rico, a determination previously made by the defendants,” a Saturday docket entry from Hillman states. “The public interest on balance favors the plaintiffs both in terms of their personal interests and considering the specter of many sick individuals without homes of their own being rendered homeless with the resulting drain on other public resources in addition to the possible human consequences.”

Though the judge conceded that the record is limited at this point, he said the pleadings are enough to make FEMA continue paying hotel bills for the class “until checkout time on July 4, 2018.”

Hillman also held a telephone hearing with the attorneys on July 2, 2018, at 12:45 p.m.

Reacting to the ruling Sunday, FEMA declined to comment beyond saying that it would notify hotels about the extension.

The class action covers all Hurricane Maria evacuees, many of whom fled to New York, Florida and Massachusetts.

Though FEMA has promoted a program that the travel by evacuees back to the island, Manatt Phelps attorney Craig J. de Recat noted it would be a one-way ticket to nowhere.

“Their homes were destroyed,” de Recat said in an interview.

“With nowhere to go,” de Recat added, “they’re going to become homeless, and create a different crisis.”

In their Saturday suit, the plaintiffs argue the federal government “should be compelled to continue [temporary shelter assistance] until FEMA provides eligible evacuees sufficient Temporary Housing Assistance and implements an adequate replacement solution, or until plaintiffs and class members have each been relocated into alternate housing.”

Recalling how FEMA worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to create the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), the class alleges that abruptly ending the program here is arbitrary.

“FEMA’s stated purpose for terminating this support for the class members is that the agency does not think DHAP is needed,” the complaint states. “This is contrary to the stark facts and the reality faced by the Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria currently relying on FEMA assistance to survive and avoid homelessness. The stated purpose of terminating the program is not borne out by the facts, and is pretext for other unstated and ulterior purposes.”

Through the declaratory judgment action the plaintiffs seek to retain their shelter and win additional assistance under the Stafford Act. They are also seeking access to more long-term shelter options.

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