National News

FEMA has plan to transport PR hurricane survivors - but few takers

Posted November 9, 2017 3:41 a.m. EST
Updated November 9, 2017 5:03 p.m. EST

— The Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering to help transport hurricane survivors from Puerto Rico to the continental United States but, so far, there are few takers.

Hurricane Maria survivors who want to temporarily relocate to the mainland could end up in Florida or New York, as FEMA is working to establish agreements with both states. The two states were selected by Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello, with priority given to approximately 3,000 people who are living in shelters, according to FEMA.

But only two shelter residents of the more than 1,000 interviewed by FEMA so far have signed up, Mike Byrne, a FEMA federal coordinating officer, told CNN Thursday.

"They want the other assistance we can give them," Byrne said. "But (there's) not a lot of interest in leaving. I think that's not a surprise. They want to stay close to their homes because then they have a chance to repair them. They want to stay close to family."

The transport would be handled under FEMA's Transitional Shelter Assistance, which helps displaced residents find interim housing while they're working to repair their homes. Lacking hotel rooms in Puerto Rico, the agency is asking hurricane survivors whether they wish to stay on the island or relocate temporarily to the mainland.

FEMA would pay for the flights to and from the mainland, as well as up to 60 days in a hotel.

Byrne said a couple of hundred families who left the island on their own have signed up for the benefit and some 40 families are staying in hotels on the island.

Both Florida and New York have sizable Puerto Rican communities. Florida has already seen tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans coming to its state after Hurricane Maria struck the island, which is still struggling to regain power more than a month after the storm.

About 60% of the US territory, which is home to approximately 3.4 million US citizens, is still without power. On Thursday, a massive outage in the capital of San Juan plummeted power generation from over 40% of capacity to 18%, according to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA.

An operation to transport people out or an "air bridge" would be the first for FEMA, Byrne said.

"Right now, we're kind of focused on finding solutions for these families that will prevent us having to dislodge them and have them travel as far as that," he said. "We're working on the details of it -- on a just-in-case scenario."

Possible solutions include $100 million in financial assistance to displaced families as well as rental stipends and aid for home repairs, Byrne said.

"It's kind of the solution of last resort and it's designed as a priority for the people in shelters," he said of the air bridge.

The logistics are still being worked out.

"If we can rely on the commercial market, we'll use the commercial market," he said. "If the commercial market isn't sufficient for the demand then we'll look into possibly chartering flights."