NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH)– Some Puerto Rican evacuees now living in Connecticut are facing a deadline this week.The federal government put them up in hotels after hurricanes damaged their homes but that funding is about to run out. The question is whether it is really safe to go back?
Ever since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, leaders of New Haven Agencies and charitable groups get together every week to talk about how to help the thousands of evacuees who settled in Connecticut.
“They all come with different expertise, so when you bring everybody together, then we can provide a more holistic plan,” said Mayor Toni Harp, (D) New Haven.
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro finally had some good news to report to this weekly meeting. “$89 billion in disaster relief,” is what she said the federal budget approved last week includes.
That is welcome news for the island of Puerto Rico, but after five months, help for evacuees in Connecticut is starting to dry up, and temporary shelters elsewhere are closing.
“We’re getting people from across the state, from Willimantic to Naugatuck to Stamford, and Hartford and Bridgeport area,” explained Paola Serrecchia, advocacy director for the Junta for Progressive Action Advocacy.
Those evacuees are still here because conditions are still so bad back in Puerto Rico. An explosion and fire at a power substation this weekend set back efforts at restoring electricity, and DeLauro saw the rest of the physical devastation on a visit to Puerto Rico less than 3 weeks ago.
“Still, not everyone is able to have clean drinking water,” DeLauro said. “We’re looking at houses that have blue tarps on them, but not a roof over their heads.”
The federal government has been paying for their hotels here until they could go back there. Five months later, FEMA now says it is going to stop paying for those rooms for anyone whose house in Puerto Rico is deemed “habitable.”
“Habitable means it has to have a roof, electricity and water, and a roof could be a blue tarp roof, we all understand that,” explained New Haven Deputy Director of Emergency Operations Rick Fontana.
Aid groups here are stepping up to help evacuees stay in Connecticut longer, because they believe US citizens deserve more than a tarp.
“I understand that it’s habitable, the four walls are up and you have a roof over your head of some sort,” Serrecchia said. “But somebody that’s dealing with disabilities or very young children you know, now we have to think about their health and their well being.”
New Haven is hosting 800 people from Puerto Rico, including 200 school aged children.
State and local agencies actually worked together to extend funding for many until his Wednesday. They will try to extend it again. But funding runs out for many more on March 20th. That will put an even bigger strain on aid groups.