Recovery

Fight to Extend Housing Assistance for Puerto Ricans Displaced by Maria to Continue in Worcester Court Today

A FEMA spokesman said the government will extend the program until July 5.

by Brad Petrishen, Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. / July 3, 2018
Jonathan Aponte walks with a gas can up the road to his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. AP/Gerald Herbert

(TNS) - An effort led in part by a local lawyer to fight the expiration of federal housing assistance to thousands of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria is set to continue Monday in federal court.

Worcester lawyer Hector E. Pineiro, in conjunction with national civil rights group LatinoJustice, was granted a temporary restraining order Saturday that bars the government from stopping payments that are keeping about 1,700 displaced people in hotels nationwide.

The payments were scheduled to expire Sunday, leaving people who fled the island scrambling to determine whether to go back or try to find a way to stay. Mr. Pineiro and LatinoJustice filed a lawsuit Saturday asking for an emergency continuance of the payments, and the request was approved hours before the program was set to expire by U.S. District Court Judge Leo T. Sorokin.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency has said the government will extend the program until July 5. Monday afternoon, Timothy S. Hillman, the presiding judge in U.S. District Court in Worcester, is scheduled to hear a telephone conference on the matter.

Judge Sorokin's order provides for housing assistance to be extended through Tuesday. In his order, he wrote that the public interest "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."

Judge Sorokin noted that the plaintiffs asserted in their lawsuit that FEMA in similar past disasters has extended temporary housing assistance for "substantially longer" than the present case. He said that, although the government has not yet had much of a chance to respond, the information on the record in court shows the plaintiffs "have demonstrated a sufficient likelihood of success" to warrant the temporary reprieve.

Judge Sorokin noted his order is only temporary and would not supersede any rulings made by Judge Hillman. He said lawyers for the plaintiffs on Monday should be prepared to argue their case with greater specificity in front of Judge Hillman.

Mr. Pineiro said Monday morning that the weekend has been a hectic one for evacuees, many of whom did not know the reprieve had been granted.

"It's been very chaotic," he said, because many of the hotels didn't know, either, and were preparing to kick people out.

"We were getting phone calls from people in Georgia, (from) Western Massachusetts, from people in New Bedford, whose hotels were saying, 'This is the end of the line for you,'" he said.

Mr. Pineiro said the government to its credit had someone from FEMA working over the weekend to try and help people looking for information.

FEMA Public Affairs Director William Booher on Sunday issued a release on Twitter in which he announced that a program transporting people back to Puerto Rico will be extended two months.

The program, which had been set to expire July 1, will pay for air travel back to the island. People displaced will now have until Aug. 30 to participate.

According to Mr. Booher, people can check on their eligibility and notify the government of travel plans by calling the FEMA helpline at 800-621-FEMA (3362) or TTY 800-462-7585.

Return to telegram.com for coverage of the hearing.

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