July 2, 2018 / 3:43 PM / 6 months ago

U.S. judge weighs blocking evictions of Puerto Rico storm evacuees

BOSTON (Reuters) - A lawyer for several Puerto Rican families urged a federal judge on Monday to extend an order that blocked the eviction of hundreds of people who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and have been living in hotels and motels across the United States.

Christine Gonzalez of Puerto Rico sorts travel pamphlets which five-year-old son Kahil Olmeda pulled from a display rack in a Super 8 Motel lobby in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S., July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Joey Roulette

Hector Pineiro, the attorney, asked U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Massachusetts, to prevent the federal government for at least a month from cutting off housing assistance to people who were forced to leave their homes because of Hurricane Maria.

Pineiro asked Hillman to extend a temporary restraining order issued on Saturday that is set to expire on Wednesday, saying that allowing it to lapse would be “catastrophic” for the around 1,700 families receiving vouchers for hotel housing.

“They have no place to go,” he said. “They have no place to live.”

But a lawyer representing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rayford Farquhar, said the evacuees had been on notice that the Transitional Shelter Assistance program was set to end following multiple extensions.

Hillman, who held the hearing by teleconference while overseeing a trial in Puerto Rico as a visiting judge, did not immediately rule but said he would do his best to do so quickly.

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

FEMA has said 1,722 families displaced by Maria are receiving aid under a program in which they were provided a voucher to seek hotel lodging. Of those, 585 families reside in motels in Central Florida.

The agency announced on May 29 that benefits from the federal hotel voucher program would end on June 30, which would have required evacuees residing in U.S. mainland hotels and motels to check out on Sunday.

Eight Puerto Ricans, most of whom are currently 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, U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin in Boston issued a temporary restraining order that required the U.S. government to extend the aid for hotel vouchers until at least check-out time on Wednesday.

Sorokin said that ending the voucher program could irreparably harm the hurricane evacuees as many would become homeless since their homes in Puerto Rico were rendered uninhabitable.

The case was subsequently transferred to Hillman.

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

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