The federal agency announced Thursday that it would grant Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's request for an "unconditional extension" of the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, which provides short-term lodging assistance in the form of hotel vouchers. Hundreds of families were displaced from the island after Hurricane Maria, and the majority of evacuees ended up in Florida.
Rosselló made the request for an unconditional extension to FEMA two days before an April deadline for the program, which would have cut off aid to about 600 families in Florida. After some families started moving out of the hotels, FEMA granted a last-minute extension for all evacuees until May 14.
The final extension of the TSA program announced Thursday will end on June 30. FEMA also says it will offer transportation back to Puerto Rico for families who evacuated to the mainland. About 2,300 families remain in TSA-participating hotels in more than 30 states and Puerto Rico, according to the agency.
"Survivors currently participating in the TSA program now have 60 days to solidify their recovery plans to locate longer-term housing," the agency said in a statement. "FEMA is actively working with social service agencies and non-profit organizations to assist survivors, as well as providing direct assistance."
Members of Vamos4PR, a community coalition that has been working with Puerto Rican evacuees, said they were happy with FEMA's decision.
"What the hundreds of families who have arrived in Central Florida as Hurricane Maria climate refugees have been asking for is a hand up, not a handout," said Father José Rodríguez of Jesús de Nazaret Episcopal Church in Orlando. "We are heartened to see that FEMA has come to a reasonable decision on its Temporary Shelter Assistance program, though we would like to see the agency offer assistance for families who want to move into long-term housing."
Millie Santiago said her family and thousands of other families displaced by Hurricane Maria were "relieved that FEMA did the right thing" by extending aid until after the school year is over.
"For those of us who need to stay in Florida and in other states for the near future, this decision gives us much needed time to find long-term housing, so we can provide our families with stability," Santiago said. "We are also thrilled to see how families like mine, coming together with community allies, have the power to push decision-makers to address our needs."
Federal lawmakers like U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy, who have been urging FEMA and Rosselló to extend the TSA program unconditionally until the end of the school year, also expressed their relief.
BREAKING: FEMA has extended all TSA housing vouchers thru June 30 & will pay for flights back to PR + resettlement on island for those eligible. Our office fought repeatedly for extensions, glad @fema finally providing peace of mind for struggling families #Sayfie @HispanicCaucus— US Rep. Darren Soto (@RepDarrenSoto) May 3, 2018
Pleased to report that @FEMA will extend the Transitional Shelter Assistance program for displaced Puerto Rican families in Florida and other states through June 30. Thank you to PR Gov. @RicardoRossello for requesting the extension. Another successful bipartisan effort! #FlaPol— Rep Stephanie Murphy (@RepStephMurphy) May 3, 2018
Big News today! - FEMA has just agreed to extend its TSA housing assistance program for all displaced Puerto Rican families through June 30 to allow them to, at least, finish out the current school year.— Senator Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) May 3, 2018
Florida Gov. Rick Scott also said he was "glad" that FEMA had extended the program for Puerto Rican families in the Sunshine State, adding that he recently spoke with FEMA Administrator Brock Long about keeping FEMA case managers in Florida to offer assistance.
"Florida has done everything possible to help our neighbors in Puerto Rico with their continued recovery from Hurricane Maria," Scott said in a statement. "Over the past seven months since Maria made landfall, we have remained in constant communication with Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his leadership team and I have made five trips to Puerto Rico to offer our full assistance and guidance."
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