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The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it is time for people who fled Puerto Rico to go home. Since Hurricane Maria struck, about 4,000 Puerto Rican families have been staying at hotels and motels on the mainland. And now FEMA says it will stop providing the temporary assistance that pays their bills. Here's Connecticut Public Radio's Ryan Caron King.
RYAN CARON KING, BYLINE: Brian Rivera was finishing his breakfast in the lobby of the Red Roof Inn in downtown Hartford. He's been living there with his wife and two toddlers since December, and he didn't know yet if he'd have to move out soon, so he went up to the front desk and asked.
UNIDENTIFIED HOTEL EMPLOYEE: It is showing that you are extended until March 20.
BRIAN RIVERA: All right, I got an extension. That's good.
KING: How does that feel?
RIVERA: It feels good because I was worried about it, what I was going to do with my kids if I didn't find something. But I hope I can find something really fast. I'm moving every day to see what I can find.
KING: Rivera says life at the hotel is better than it was in Humacao, Puerto Rico. He and his family had to sleep on air mattresses after the hurricane flooded their house. But he says it's still difficult living for so long in a small hotel room with no kitchen.
RIVERA: If I can go to today, I would leave today right now.
KING: Rivera says he's working to move out as soon as he can. He wants to restart his family's life here in Hartford. He found a job at a car wash, and they have an application in for an apartment. Rivera is one of close to 11,000 Puerto Ricans who have been living in hotels and motels after Hurricane Maria. As of mid-January, the program has cost FEMA about $21 million.
Sam Harvey manages the hotel assistance program. He says FEMA has inspected most of the homes belonging to families losing their aid, and those inspections showed the majority of houses weren't significantly damaged and had their utilities turned back on.
SAM HARVEY: This kind of assistance is only intended to be temporary, and it's only intended for those who have no other option.
KING: Harvey says families can appeal the results of their inspection if they dispute FEMA's findings. Last week, FEMA called around 200 of those families to tell them they were no longer eligible for aid. They have until this Thursday to find another place to live. That's on top of another 600 families who had to leave their hotel rooms last month. That includes Wanda Ortiz.
WANDA ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KING: She says the same day she learned that her family had to leave her hotel room in Hartford, she got the keys to her new apartment. Ortiz says things started to fall into place after her daughter got a job here as a nurse. A local nonprofit helped with their security deposit and first month's rent.
ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KING: But she's worried about the other families still living at the hotel. She says many of the evacuees are depressed and aren't coping with the situation well. And after this Wednesday, several more will have to move out.
KING: For NPR News, I'm Ryan Caron King in Hartford, Conn.
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