Thousands Of Puerto Ricans Are Still In Shelters. Now What? A severe housing shortage is forcing emergency managers to look off the island to find temporary housing. But many Puerto Ricans don't want to leave.

Thousands Of Puerto Ricans Are Still In Shelters. Now What?

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So many people in Puerto Rico still have no electricity, and some people in Puerto Rico still have no homes because their houses were destroyed by Hurricane Maria. More than 2,000 Puerto Ricans are still living in shelters. As FEMA and Puerto Rico's government try to move from response to recovery they have set a priority to find more permanent homes, but local hotels are filled to capacity. NPR's Greg Allen reports that's forcing emergency managers to look off the island for temporary housing.


YAMYRIA MORALES: (Laughter, speaking Spanish) Mama.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For Yamyria Morales, her baby daughter and 2-year-old son Jonael, home for now is a couple of cots in a gymnasium at an elementary school in Vega Alta, an hour west of San Juan.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: "I've lost track of exactly when I arrived here," Morales says. It was just days after Hurricane Maria destroyed her home.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: "I had a wooden house. The little I had, I lost," she says. "I only have kitchen appliances left, but I don't know if they work. I lost my son's bed and my daughter's crib." Morales is alone in the shelter with her two small children. FEMA has offered to fly her and her children to Florida or New York where they would be put up for a few months in a hotel. She's not interested.

MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: "Not right now," Morales says. "My dad is sick, and I need to be here. I told them I couldn't take the offer right now. I'd rather stay in Puerto Rico." Yamyria Morales is hoping FEMA will find an apartment for her nearby. Mike Byrne, the man in charge of the FEMA response in Puerto Rico, says the agency routinely houses people temporarily in hotels after disasters.

In Puerto Rico, though, many hotels are still closed. Others are full with emergency responders and crews working to restore the power grid. Because of that, Byrne says, FEMA is considering something new - chartering a plane to fly people to New York or Florida, where they'd stay in hotels.

MIKE BYRNE: It's better than leaving them in the condition that they're in. People that are still in shelters, you know, generally don't have any other options. We want them to have another option.

ALLEN: But so far, Byrne says, there are few takers.

BYRNE: We're seeing that people want to stay here. They want to work on rebuilding their homes. They want to focus on coming back and some sense of normalcy. And yanking your family and taking it 1,000, 2,000 miles away is not going to help with that.

ALLEN: At the shelter in Vega Alta, there are still 39 families staying here, including Yamyria Morales and her children. Luis Vasquez is with FEMA. He's been interviewing people with an eye toward getting them out of the school gymnasium and into temporary housing somewhere. But Vasquez says the problem is there aren't a lot of apartments or houses available on the island.

LUIS VASQUEZ: A lot of them were damaged. A lot of them are still not being repaired or made habitable. And some of them have already been taken.

ALLEN: FEMA offers grants of up to $33,000 to help homeowners repair their houses. But Vasquez says many people lack the paperwork needed to prove ownership.

VASQUEZ: We only accept deeds, titles, property tax receipts or any type of official government documentation to show that you are the one responsible for the house.

ALLEN: As a last resort, Vasquez says, FEMA will sometimes accept a notarized statement. But it makes for a time-consuming process, one that increases the number of people needing temporary shelter. Roberto Fret's house is just across the street from the Vega Alta shelter. He, his wife and two teenage children took shelter there a day before Maria hit. The hurricane blew the roof off his home. What remains is scattered in pieces in his backyard. A FEMA team put up a tarp and a temporary roof frame, but Fret says it's not doing the job. Water still comes in whenever it rains. Climbing a ladder, he shows me the problems with his roof.

Oh, yeah, and the water's still pooling up here. Yeah. Oh, there's holes in the tarp, they're showing me.

ROBERTO FRET: (Speaking Spanish).


Fret just heard about FEMA's offer to fly him and his family to a hotel room in New York or Florida.

FRET: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: He's going. It's the best option, he says. It won't take him long to fix his house once he gets his check from FEMA. But in the meantime, he says, he and his family have to get out of the shelter.

FRET: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Pointing to his head, Fret says, "we're affected. Our mental health will improve if we leave. All of us are affected emotionally and mentally because help hasn't arrived yet. We are just waiting." Greg Allen, NPR News, Vega Alta, Puerto Rico.


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