July 3, 2018 / 1:55 PM / 15 days ago

Puerto Rico storm evacuees spared from eviction: court order

BOSTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday extended an order preventing the eviction of hundreds of Puerto Rican families who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and have been living in hotels and motels across the United States.

The order by U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Massachusetts bars the federal government for three weeks from cutting off housing assistance to people who were forced to leave their homes because of Hurricane Maria. Families will be able to remain in hotels until checkout time on July 24.

Hillman’s ruling extended a previous temporary restraining order issued on Saturday that prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to extend the assistance program until July 5.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with winds close to 150 miles per hour (240 kph), causing an estimated $90 billion in damage to the economically struggling U.S. territory.

In Tuesday’s order, Hillman asked lawyers in the case to address to what extent he should factor in Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello’s decision not to request an extension of the program as the judge considers whether to grant the evacuees further relief beyond July 24.

FEMA said in a statement it would notify hotels that the program has been extended. According to the agency, 952 displaced families are receiving aid under a program in which they are provided a voucher to seek hotel lodging.

At its peak, the program assisted about 7,000 families, Keith Turi, assistant administrator of the recovery directorate at FEMA, said during a hearing on Monday.

FEMA announced in May that the program would end on June 30, which would have required evacuees residing in U.S. mainland hotels to check out on Sunday.

Eight Puerto Ricans, most of whom are in Massachusetts, filed a proposed class action lawsuit on Saturday, contending FEMA’s actions would violate their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.

On Saturday, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the government from terminating the program until Tuesday night. The case was then transferred to Hillman.

Critics on the island said in the weeks after the hurricane that federal agencies had responded poorly to the disaster and charged that President Donald Trump’s administration viewed Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens, an allegation denied by federal agencies.

LatinoJustice PRLDEF, an advocacy organization pursuing the lawsuit, welcomed Tuesday’s ruling, saying in a Twitter post it is “hoping to convince the judge to hold FEMA accountable for our community!”

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Dan Grebler and Frances Kerry

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