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Time Is Running Out for Puerto Ricans Sheltering in Hotels

HARTFORD, Conn. — The fourth floor of the Red Roof Inn felt like a city block on a recent Friday night, as families spilled from their rooms into the hallway. Doors were propped open. Chihuahuas skittered around on the carpet, and a cluster of teenage boys had claimed a spot by the elevators, a speaker thumping with hip-hop.

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The fourth floor of the Red Roof Inn felt like a city block on a recent Friday night, as families spilled from their rooms into the hallway. Doors were propped open. Chihuahuas skittered around on the carpet, and a cluster of teenage boys had claimed a spot by the elevators, a speaker thumping with hip-hop.

At the end of the hall, in a room where a window framed the dome of the state Capitol like a postcard, Janette Febres’ husband and 12-year-old son watched television on the bed the three of them have been sharing for nearly three months, reaching the end of a day as empty and restless as many of the ones before it.

The living conditions were cramped, and the room did not have a microwave or refrigerator. Febres has asked housekeeping to stop cleaning the room just so she could have something to occupy her time. Even so, she was grateful. Her room, like those many other families were staying in, was paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Amid the turmoil that has unraveled much of her family’s life since fleeing Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, the room was one of the few things that seemed stable.

“For us,” she said, “this is home.”

But she is worried about how long the support will continue.

The desperation that followed Maria’s devastation and the stumbling response has given way to uncertainty for many Puerto Ricans throughout the country. Some who left for the mainland United States have returned home, while others have laid roots in new places, finding jobs and securing permanent housing.

Yet thousands of other families remain in limbo and have been relying on hotel rooms provided by FEMA as they decide whether to go back or forge ahead elsewhere. Many people staying in the hotels have described confusion over where their cases stand and anxiety about whether they will be able to stay as deadlines rapidly approach — for some, as soon as this week.

“It has me on pins and needles,” said Wanda Arroyo, 56, who has been living in a hotel in Queens. “It has gotten to the point that I don’t even pick up the letters slipped under my door because of the expectation that one will say I’m being kicked out.”

Nearly 4,000 families spread across 40 states and Puerto Rico remain in hotels under FEMA’s transitional sheltering assistance program, federal officials said. Most families — more than 1,500 — were in Florida, while hundreds of others were in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. More than 800 were in hotels in Puerto Rico.

Most of the stays have been extended until March 20, but about 200 households have been alerted that FEMA would stop paying for their rooms as of Wednesday. The agency had already cut off assistance last month for some households after federal officials determined that their homes in Puerto Rico were habitable and had functioning utilities.

FEMA said that the agency was hearing appeals from some who had been denied further assistance and added that it was possible for the program to continue after March if Puerto Rican officials found that it was still needed. But agency officials stressed that the program — which was also used to support families displaced by hurricanes in Texas and Florida — was supposed to be short-term.

“This is a bridge to other longer-term solutions,” William Booher, a FEMA spokesman, said, adding that “survivors are responsible for their own recovery and to actively look for permanent housing solutions.”

Some who were told that their homes were fit to live in disagreed, like Febres, who argued that her house needed significant repairs. Others said they had difficulty getting clear answers from the agency about where their case stood. In some cases, local officials and charities have stepped in. In Connecticut, officials intervened on behalf of about three dozen families who were told that they had become ineligible for help. After FEMA declined to extend assistance, the state agreed to cover the hotel expenses of 17 families until Wednesday. State officials said additional money had been set aside to help families in Connecticut who were losing their aid this week.

“The families are in a constant state of unrest,” said Wildaliz Bermudez, a Hartford City Councilwoman who visited families staying at the Red Roof Inn downtown. “They were displaced in Puerto Rico and now they’re being displaced here.”

The situation has been a reminder of how the storm’s devastation continues to ripple five months after Maria raked over the island. The families in the hotels have been part of an exodus as Puerto Rico has struggled to recover. Researchers have projected that by next year, nearly a half million will have left Puerto Rico for the mainland United States after the hurricane.

Where the families in the hotels will ultimately end up remains to be seen.

In lobby of the Hartford hotel, one woman said her daughter had gotten a nursing job and her family was looking for an apartment. Among others, there was an air of weariness, as they anguished over what might come next. Job interviews had been unsuccessful or language barriers made it difficult to find work. Some were simply aimless as weeks went by with little to do. When Febres needed to go to the store, her family made the 3-mile walk to a Walmart just because they wanted to burn energy.

Many were still reeling from the trauma that has festered since the storm.

Arroyo was flown to New York City on Nov. 15 and spent two weeks with an aunt before checking into a hotel in Corona, Queens. She suffers from a litany of medical conditions, including diabetes and depression. She needs a wheelchair and is blind in her left eye, which is covered by a patch of white gauze taped to her reading glasses.

After the storm and before her evacuation to New York, she was largely confined to her bed in her home in Ponce, cared for by her father’s widow. Stuck in sweltering heat, she worried that wounds on her body would become infected. She was so fearful she even wrote a will and instructions to cremate her remains on the back of a photograph of her father and mother, which she clutched in her hands as she slept.

“I don’t know how I survived,” she said. Yanitza Cruz, who is nearly eight months pregnant, was told when she checked into the hotel in Queens in December that she could stay until Feb. 14. She has become increasingly worried as the deadline approaches; her calls to FEMA yielded few answers. When she tried to check the status of her case online, the website said it had been “withdrawn.”

“The clock is ticking,” she said. “Time is against us.”

She traveled to Queens with her husband, Joel García, and 5-year-old daughter, Janesty, from the mountain town of Orocovis, southwest of San Juan. They had been drawn by the promise that New York appeared to offer, fueling hopes of getting an apartment and, for Joel García, becoming a licensed barber in the city he saw as a “barbershop mecca.” It seemed different from home, where they struggled even before the hurricane.

“We didn’t even have a car in Puerto Rico,” Joel García said. “We would walk with our bags under the sun. Now we’re in a place where for $2.75 I can travel to Brooklyn. I see this as an opportunity. But the thing is, we haven’t found stability yet. I’m just looking for stability.”

It is difficult to tell when that stability might ever come, but last week they did receive a measure of relief. FEMA called to let them know they could stay in the hotel another month.

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