Desiree Torres fled Puerto Rico six months ago. Now she and her family are fighting to make a new home in Central Florida 

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click to enlarge Desiree Torres navigates through the web of evacuee resources - PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
  • Desiree Torres navigates through the web of evacuee resources

NOVEMBER, DECEMBER, JANUARY

After a week in Kissimmee, nothing had gone as planned.

Torres was still unemployed. When she tried to apply for a job at the airline, there were no open positions. She was told to apply again in April.

"I was so heartbroken," she says. "I cried when I found out. That was my dream job. It still is."

She and her three children were staying with relatives in cramped quarters. We are like sausages in a can, she thought.

"We had to go," Torres says. "You know what they say: El muerto y el arrimado a los tres días apesta." (The dead and guests stink after three days.)

Torres had heard at the airport assistance center about hotel vouchers FEMA was offering to hurricane evacuees from Puerto Rico. She looked for the cleanest-looking hotel she could find on Highway 192 and chose the Super 8. At one point, at least 60 families that had evacuated from Puerto Rico lived in that motel – Torres knew because she'd helped staff deliver letters to the families from the federal agency.

When they moved in on Nov. 7, Torres and the children were given a suite with two bedrooms but no kitchen. She would make hot dogs and white rice in the microwave for Yadiel and Yadieliz after they came home from school on the bus. She didn't have a car, so she would put Ramsses in his stroller and take the bus to the store – it took an hour to get to the Walmart five miles away. Torres didn't have enough money for the coin laundry, either, so she'd wash their clothes in the bathtub and hang them on the window to dry.

Things started to change when they were moved into a suite with a kitchen, which gave Torres an idea. While she looked for a job and daycare for Ramsses, she could make some side money by cooking for the other evacuees in the hotel.

The first time, she fried some empanadillas and left her motel door open. Sure enough, she attracted some clients and sold her savory turnovers at two for $5. Then she expanded her menu to include fried pork chunks and tostones as a lunch platter. Motel staff, though, quickly caught wind of her operation and forced Torres to shut down.

But Torres loved to cook and would do it for free for her motel neighbors. They formed a little community of sorts by sharing groceries they bought. In December, the evacuees in the motel decided to have their first Puerto Rican Christmas in Kissimmee. Torres was in charge of bringing the macaroni salad. Everyone hauled out their small tables and pushed them together in the parking lot to have a feast. Even though it was not even close to the big celebrations they had at home, they had a good time laughing and taking photos.

For some, it was the last time they'd be together.

"Mira estas dos," Torres says, pointing to a picture with two women smiling next to her. "They had to go back to Puerto Rico after FEMA didn't approve them. It's hard. Not everybody can make it here."

The evacuees could never figure out why FEMA approved some cases and threw others out, but they suspected it had something to do with whether electricity and water was running at their home. A spokesperson for FEMA says there are several reasons why a survivor is not eligible for continued TSA assistance, including: if survivors' homes did not have enough damage to affect habitability and their utilities are working; if survivors are staying with friends and families; if survivors' utilities were on at the time of inspection; and if they are not "progressing" on their long-term housing solution. FEMA officials say that as of March 19, 3,433 applicants from Puerto Rico were staying under the TSA program in 36 states and the island, including 1,256 applicants in Florida. In January, FEMA reported 4,322 families were being housed under the program, including 1,794 in Florida.

Torres' mother, Beltrán, got her power back 96 days after the storm, but it would still go out sporadically and for long periods of time. The federal agency had also given Beltrán a little over $500 to repair her house.

At the beginning of January, FEMA told Torres she had to leave by Jan. 13 – the same day Ramsses turned 2. She pleaded for an extension but couldn't get one. (FEMA has only said it extends cases on a "case-by-case" basis.) She thought about begging her mother to buy her a plane ticket back to Puerto Rico.

"What would you do if you had three kids?" she asks. "You're thinking about what you're going to do, where you're going to stay. It's a moment of desperation. How would other people react if someone told them they had to leave, and they had nowhere to go?"

On her last day, Desiree decided to make Ramsses' birthday special. She bought him a small cake with two thin candles and 12 blue cupcakes. They sat him on the kitchen table and all the motel kids sang to him. Usually a force of nature, Ramsses managed to sit still enough for Desiree to take his photo.

At the last minute, FEMA approved Torres and her family for another month – this time until Feb. 14.

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