Puerto Rican evacuees hunt for housing as vouchers expire

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Like many Puerto Ricans who fled to the mainland after Hurricane Maria, Jose Santiago has been scrambling to find a place to live. The federal vouchers that pay for his hotel room near the Orlando airport expire at checkout time Friday.

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In this Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, photo, Jose Santiago talks about difficulty finding a new home in his temporary room at the WoodSpring Suites in Orlando, Fla. Santiago, like many Puerto Rican evacuees, has until Friday to find a place to live. (AP Photo/John Raoux)


He has visited apartment complexes, but his name gets put on waiting lists. He has applied for assistance for apartment housing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it won't give him any money unless he has a lease. And he can't sign a lease without money for a deposit and first and last months' rent.

Santiago, 40, can afford to pay only $500 to $800 a month with his job driving cars for an auction house. At this point, he's ready to just rent a room to put a roof over his head.

"At that amount, it's difficult," Santiago, whose tidy hotel room has a cooking range and refrigerator, said in Spanish. "It's not impossible, but it's very difficult."

The clock began ticking late last month for hundreds of Puerto Rican evacuees who rely on federal assistance to pay for hotel rooms. A federal judge in Massachusetts set Friday as the deadline for the vouchers to end after denying an effort to force FEMA to continue the program. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman, who expressed anguish over his decision, ended almost three months of legal challenges and extensions.

As of Tuesday, there were more than 600 families using the vouchers on the mainland, with more than half of those families in Florida. Almost 400 families were using the vouchers on the island.

The judge's decision is forcing Idalis Fernandez to split up her family. Her husband and 2-year-old son, Adrian, are heading back to Puerto Rico where family members can watch the boy and her husband has a job lined up. She is staying in Florida, where she has work as a line cook at Walt Disney World, and where the couple's oldest son, 11-year-old Alexander, is doing well in school.

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In this Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, photo, Idalis Fernandez walks to her hotel room provided by FEMA with her son Adrian, 2, at the Baymont Inn in Kissimmee, Fla. Vouchers that paid for hotel rooms for Puerto Rican evacuees end Friday, leaving many to find roofs over their heads. (AP Photo/John Raoux)


Finding an apartment has been difficult, she said, since many rental companies require that she earn three times her monthly rent.

"I have nothing in Puerto Rico. At least I can stay here and work," Fernandez, 28, said in Spanish as she held Adrian outside a motel in Orlando's tourist district.

FEMA hasn't done enough for the evacuees, forcing local governments and organizations to step up, advocates say.

"Now the location (the families) chose in a moment of deep urgency and disaster is affecting their ability to find housing. This is exactly what we were trying to avoid," said Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, a lawyer with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, which brought the lawsuit against FEMA.

FEMA, amid preparations for Hurricane Florence to hit the mid-Atlantic, didn't respond to an email this week seeking comment. But the agency has said it has provided a variety of housing options for people left homeless by Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico head-on nearly a year ago. It has also dismissed suggestions that the evacuees were being treated differently from those displaced by hurricanes in Texas and Florida last year.

FEMA said in a court filing last month that Puerto Rico has received $3.9 billion in assistance for Hurricane Maria, compared with $2.4 billion for Texas for Hurricane Harvey and $1.1 billion for Florida for Hurricane Irma.

In central Florida, the local United Way is offering up to $5,000 toward security deposits for some families. In New York City, more than 540 Puerto Rican evacuees are already in the city shelter system, and 30 other families may end up there after their hotel vouchers end.

Massachusetts, the state with the second largest number of evacuee families after Florida, will allow families with children and people with medical conditions to remain in hotels temporarily on the state's dime, said Gina Plata-Nino, an attorney with the Central West Justice Center. The state will also provide some housing assistance for certain families to help them move into more permanent homes, she said.

But more than two dozen households in Massachusetts who don't qualify for the state program will become homeless Friday, Plata-Nino said.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, whose staffers held office hours at three central Florida hotels this week to assist evacuees, put the blame on President Donald Trump and a Republican-dominated Congress that did not pass supplemental disaster relief assistance.

"President Trump, to this day, has not acknowledged, not only the lack of resources and slow response time, but the continued issues in Puerto Rico," said Soto, a Democrat whose district covers a part of metro Orlando. "It didn't have to be this way."

Trump this week called the response to Hurricane Maria "an incredible, unsung success" and said his administration did an "underappreciated great job."

Puerto Rico's governor last month raised the U.S. territory's official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975.

On Thursday, Trump, without citing evidence, said that number was wrong and called it a plot by Democrats to make him look bad.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP . Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/aedurkinricher and read more of her work at http://bit.ly/2hIhzDb .


 

Trump falsely says Democrats inflated Puerto Rico death toll

By CATHERINE LUCEY, ZEKE MILLER and JONATHAN LEMIRE ,  Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday rejected the official conclusion that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico from last year's Hurricane Maria, arguing without evidence that the number was wrong and calling it a plot by Democrats to make him "look as bad as possible."

As Hurricane Florence approached the Carolinas, the president picked a fresh fight over the administration's response to the Category 4 storm that smashed into the U.S. territory last September. Trump visited the island in early October to assess the situation amid widespread criticism over the recovery efforts.

"When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000," Trump tweeted.

He added: "This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico."

Puerto Rico's governor last month raised Maria's official death toll from 64 to 2,975 after an independent study found that the number of people who succumbed in the sweltering aftermath had been severely undercounted. Previous reports from the Puerto Rican government said the number was closer to 1,400.

Trump's comments drew swift criticism from elected officials and residents of the island, where blackouts remain common, 60,000 homes still have makeshift roofs and 13 percent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in a Facebook post in Spanish, "the victims of Puerto Rico, and the people of Puerto Rico in general, do not deserve to be questioned about their pain."

Rossello said he left the analysis of the deaths in the hands of experts and accepted their estimate as the official death toll. "I trust that this process was carried out properly," he said.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a Democrat who has sparred with Trump, tweeted that "Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT." Rep. Luis Gutierrez, whose parents were Puerto Rican immigrants, spoke on the House floor in front of a printout of the Puerto Rican flag, saying Trump is "delusional" and incapable or "empathy or basic human decency."

Trump began to focus on Hurricane Florence earlier this week, calling for an Oval Office briefing with the FEMA director to warn about the threat. But as the hurricane began to dominate news coverage, the administration's efforts after Hurricane Maria came under new scrutiny and began to infuriate Trump, according to two Republican advisers close to the White House who weren't authorized to speak publicly.

When a reporter asked Trump about Maria in the Oval Office, he swiftly unleashed fact-challenged defense of his response to the hurricane. That led the cable news coverage that evening, further angering the president, according to one of the people.

Trump told confidants that the media was underplaying the challenging circumstances in Puerto Rico and trying to exploit the storm to attack him. He told one adviser that he felt that he media "would stop at nothing" to undermine him and blamed local authorities for their inept response.

The estimate of nearly 3,000 dead in the six months after Maria devastated Puerto Rico and knocked out the entire electrical grid was made by researchers with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. The study said the original estimates were so low because doctors on the island had not been trained to properly classify deaths after a natural disaster.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides doctors with a set of recommendations for counting such deaths as those caused by natural disasters, but the guidelines were almost never followed by Puerto Rican doctors in the chaos after the storm.

Puerto Rico's government, which is neither Republican nor Democratic, but run by the New Progressive party, a pro-statehood, Puerto Rico-only party, accepted the 2,975 number as a legitimate estimate of the storm's true toll.

Throughout the week, the president has repeatedly defended his administration's efforts in Puerto Rico, calling it it an "incredible, unsung success" and renewed his verbal spat with Cruz, the San Juan mayor.

Hurricane Maria hit last year as the Trump administration was feeling positive about the handling of massive hurricanes in Florida and Texas last summer. Trump believed those recovery efforts were a success story he could use to turn the tide of negative press stories after a troubled August, said one official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Then came Maria and devastation in Puerto Rico, where a slow federal response was complicated by logistical concerns and preexisting economic and infrastructure deficiencies on the island territory.

But Trump, that official said, was unwilling to admit even internally that more needed to be done on the island.

Rossello, seized on Trump's use of the word "successful" and said in a statement at the time: "No relationship between a colony and the federal government can ever be called 'successful' because Puerto Ricans lack certain inalienable rights enjoyed by our fellow Americans in the states."

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898. Its inhabitants are U.S. citizens, though they are barred from voting in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.

Rossello said Maria was "the worst natural disaster in our modern history" and that work remained before the island could move on to other stages of recovery. He also said he was waiting for Trump to respond to a petition to help Puerto Rico complete work on emergency housing restoration programs and debris removal.

Trump, who has struggled to express public empathy at times of national crises, sparked outrage during his post-Maria visit when he feuded with San Juan mayor and passed out paper towels to victims like he was shooting baskets.

After that visit, Trump said Puerto Ricans were fortunate that Maria was not a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast. All told, about 1,800 people died in that 2005 storm.

In his 2010 book "Decision Points," former President George W. Bush reflected on his mistakes during Hurricane Katrina, a human catastrophe that became a political cloud that hung over the rest of his presidency. He wrote that he should have urged the evacuation of New Orleans sooner, visited sooner and shown more empathy. "My biggest substantive mistake was waiting too long to deploy active-duty troops," Bush wrote.