A veritable bureaucratic mixup threatened the livelihood of somewhere between 35 and 45 Puerto Rican families sent to Connecticut after being displaced by Hurricane Maria.
And now, state and local political leaders are urging federal authorities to correct their error.
“We’re here because FEMA, the federal emergency management agency, has fallen down on the job,” Mayor Luke Bronin said Friday inside downtown Hartford’s Red Roof Inn, where some of the affected families have been staying. “It has failed its mission to provide aid in times of desperate need.”
In what Bronin called a “cold-hearted, callous way,” FEMA reversed a decision to extend a transitional housing program that had kept those families furnished in rooms at participating hotels.
“We’re not asking FEMA to do the impossible; we’re asking them to what they promised to do,” Bronin said. “These families are not asking for a handout, they’re asking for transitional help so they can get settled.”
Initially, that program, designed as a temporary solution for families who’ve lost their homes in natural disasters, was set to end Jan. 13. It was later extended to March 20, but several Puerto Ricans who had fled to Connecticut were deemed ineligible for the extension.
William Booher, FEMA’s public affairs director, said that the families staying at the Red Roof Inn were denied the extension based on information gathered during the agency’s housing inspection process.
“FEMA is actively working with Connecticut’s Emergency Management Agency to address this issue and determine the most appropriate path forward to provide support to those with a validated need for continued assistance,” he said.
Last week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced that some of those families had been given an extension to Feb. 14. State officials said Friday that officials from FEMA’s regional office in Boston had confirmed that localized extension, showing correspondence with their counterparts in Puerto Rico.
Then, inexplicably, they notified the state days later that the information had been given in error, and that funding allowing the families to stay had been cut off. But the call to the state came hours after they notified Connecticut hotels participating in the program, which had already begun evicting the families.
“What we are grappling with is unnecessary, unconscionable and incompetent,” Dora B. Schriro, the commissioner of the state department of emergency services and public protection, said Friday. “It’s not something that we in the world of emergency response are supposed to do. We’re supposed to be prepared.”
After hearing reports of the evictions from the families at the hotels, state agencies scrambled to activate a “safety net” they had begun to put in place, knowing the deadline was looming. In Hartford, families at the Red Roof Inn were able to call 211 and get temporary housing — in some cases, that meant the state footing the bill for their hotel rooms.
But that aid is only available until Feb. 1, Schriro said. In the meantime, local pols are imploring FEMA to reconsider their decision.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Friday that he spoke directly with officials in FEMA’s offices in Washington and Puerto Rico and that they assured him they’re working to ensure the eligibility of the families in the program. Blumenthal promised to have an update by Sunday on the matter.
“Because that is their obligation as government officials, as well as human beings,” Blumenthal said. “The hurricane was a natural disaster, and FEMA is now making it a man made disaster for these families.”
Caught in the crossfire of the political debate are the families themselves, some of whom spoke at the news conference called by Bronin and his colleagues.
Yara Vazquez Rivera said she came to the Red Roof Inn after her home in Puerto Rico was destroyed, “washed away by the ocean.” She has found a job and is desperately searching for permanent housing for her and her family, but has been repeatedly denied.
“We’re living in a constant state of fear, a constant state of terror,” Vasquez said with the aid of a translator. “I don’t know what will happen to me and my family. Can we stay at the Red Roof Inn? Can we not? These questions come up every day.”
Her neighbor at the hotel, Emmanuel Rivera Molero, said that the federal agency “is making us look like fools.”
“After FEMA promised to let us stay here after we lost our homes, I do not see an exit plan,” he said. “We need FEMA to step up, if it wasn’t for our neighbors here and the volunteers, we would’t even have hot meals.”