KISSIMMEE, Fl. (Reuters) – A federal judge will hold a hearing on Monday that could determine the fate of hundreds of Puerto Ricans who fled the hurricane-ravaged island last year and are lodging in motels, after granting them a reprieve from eviction over the weekend.
The last benefits of a federal aid program for Hurricane Maria evacuees from the island had been set to run out on Sunday morning, cutting off housing assistance for the group residing in state-side motels.
But late on Saturday U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin of Massachusetts ordered the U.S. government to extend the aid for hotel vouchers to at least check-out time on July 4. At the hearing, he could decide whether to extend it further.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said 1,722 families are currently receiving aid under its housing program, 585 of whom reside in Central Florida motels.
FEMA said in a statement on Sunday it was aware of the judge’s decision and was contacting vendors to comply with the court order.
U.S. Democratic Representative Darren Soto, whose Kissimmee district includes Puerto Ricans facing eviction, said a displaced family can either remain in the hotel with the looming fear of losing aid or take a free flight back to the island.
“There’s a couple tough decisions people really have to make,” Soto told reporters.
Hurricane Maria dealt a vicious blow to an already struggling island that has been in recession for more than a decade, with a poverty rate near 50 percent.
Maria destroyed or significantly damaged more than a third of about 1.2 million occupied homes on the island, the government estimates.
The task of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s housing stock ultimately falls to the territory government, which has no ability to pay for it after racking up $120 billion in bond and pension debt in the years before the storm.
Reporting by Joey Roulette; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Nick Zieminski