FEMA approves final extension of housing program for Puerto Rican evacuees

Anabel Ruiz,daughter, left, who lives in Waterford Lakes in Orlando brings her father, Jose Antonio Ruiz,center, and her mother Leticia Ruiz who arrived from Puerto Rico Tuesday, October 3, 2017 to a reception area inside Orlando International Airport. (Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)

The hotel voucher program for Puerto Rican evacuees on the mainland was extended for the last time to June 30, the Puerto Rican government announced Thursday.

“We thank FEMA for listening to our petition and granting this extension that is so necessary for the Puerto Ricans who are staying in other jurisdictions in the United States through the TSA program,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a statement.

Rosselló made the initial request for an unconditional extension until June 30, two days before an April 20 deadline for the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. FEMA granted a last-minute extension until May 14th, as 600 families in Florida were at risk of losing their temporary aid.

Rosselló also announced that FEMA will be paying for the airplane tickets of TSA recipients who wish to return to the island.

“We hope that this will be the opportunity for Puerto Ricans who are longing to return to the island, to return to normal and join the recovery process on the island,” Rosselló said.

FEMA will provide direct payment to the airlines to cover the costs of the trip, and pay up to $100 in luggage and pet expenses, according to the island government. The agency will not be paying people directly or reimbursing TSA recipients who have already returned to the island.

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, said the federal agency also announced it would be paying to “help with resettlement in new apartments on the island for those eligible.”

“Our office has fought repeatedly for extensions and we’re glad FEMA has finally provided the necessary resources and peace of mind for these struggling families,” Soto said.

This is the fourth and last extension granted by the federal agency, a move that Florida lawmakers have previously said they hope won’t interfere with the school year of displaced students.

“That is very positive considering that many families have their children in their school year. Some needed a little more time to get some runway and lift off. This is great news for our families and I want to thank all of the congressmen and congresswomen that have helped in this effort,” Rosselló said in a Facebook Live.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott also praised the announcement, saying the state “has done everything possible to help our neighbors in Puerto Rico.”

“Florida remains the only state with a Host-State Agreement with FEMA to help families from Puerto Rico,” including FEMA case managers on the ground to offer assistance, he said in a statement.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, also confirmed the extension on Twitter, saying she was “pleased” with the news.

“Thank you to PR Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for requesting the extension. Another successful bipartisan effort!” she said.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio welcomes the news, calling the TSA program a “critical short-term” solution for displaced families.

“It is vital that FEMA and HUD work on long-term housing solutions for the displaced Puerto Ricans as I have urged on numerous occasions,” Rubio said in a statement.

In a statement, FEMA said it has provided hotel rooms for more than 7,000 families through the TSA program since last October. About 2,300 families are still enrolled in the program, in over 30 states and Puerto Rico.

bpadro@orlandosentinel.com or 407-232-0202. Follow me on Twitter @BiancaJoanie

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