Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel on September 5, 2018
A judge ruled last week that the Federal Emergency Management Agency can evict thousands of Hurricane Maria survivors still living in motels.
The judge stated, “The court cannot order [FEMA to] do that which in a humanitarian and caring world should be done — it can only order [FEMA] to do that which the law requires.” He acknowledged that many survivors may become homeless. They’ll join others who were made homeless first by the hurricane, and then by FEMA’s inaction and stubborn, willful disregard of proven housing solutions. Some have called the response to Hurricane Maria “Trump’s Katrina.” When it comes to the housing response, it’s worse.
Hurricane Maria was similar, in many ways, to Hurricane Katrina. Both were massive storms that wrought major damage to homes and infrastructure. Many of those hardest hit were low-income communities of color neglected by the federal government for decades — perhaps a factor in its inept, delayed and badly botched recovery efforts.
Almost 2,000 people died directly or indirectly from Hurricane Katrina, most of them low-income African-Americans and three-quarters of them seniors. They were victims of the poverty or age that prevented them from evacuating before the storm, the poor infrastructure of breached levies, and the federal government’s inadequate response.
In Puerto Rico, almost 3,000 Americans died — some by Hurricane Maria’s immediate impact, most indirectly, including the isolation and government neglect that followed. Seniors, people with disabilities and people living in poverty were hardest hit.
Both storms damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and resulted in a hurricane diaspora; almost a million people were displaced by Katrina in the Gulf region, and more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans have so far left the island, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York estimates.
Many of the lowest-income evacuees from both storms relied on hotel vouchers from FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. The poorest survivors find the program unusable: too few participating hotels, an inability to pay “resort” fees or security deposits, or no credit card to show at check-in. Some became homeless or moved back to their damaged and mold-infested homes; in Puerto Rico, thousands of poor seniors moved back to homes with no roofs, and slept on wet and moldy mattresses with little access to food or water.
Those who used hotel vouchers faced repeated arbitrary deadlines to leave the program. Deadlines were not based on completed home repairs or on an ability to secure alternative housing. Remaining in the program often required new paperwork and justifications, even when survivors’ homes remained badly damaged or destroyed. The deadlines re-traumatized, scaring some into leaving the hotels to return to precarious living conditions. In some cases, disaster evacuees left FEMA hotels to enter local homeless systems. After both Katrina and Maria, lawsuits were filed and judges’ interventions were needed to prevent mass evictions from temporary motels.
Here the similarities end. The final deadline for Katrina survivors to leave hotels came 18 months after they were first displaced from their homes. Most were then given alternative disaster housing, in FEMA trailers or through what came to be known as the Disaster Housing Assistance Program. Puerto Rican survivors have a final deadline to leave FEMA-funded hotels less than a year after their homes were badly damaged; the only additional assistance FEMA offers them is a one-way ticket back to Puerto Rico, where rebuilding efforts are just beginning.
DHAP was developed after hard-won lessons from Katrina, and has since been used successfully after other major disasters like Hurricanes Rita, Gustav, Ike and Superstorm Sandy. In those later storms, DHAP was utilized as quickly as two weeks after the disaster. DHAP provides temporary rental assistance and case management to low-income disaster victims, helping them find permanent housing and secure employment or connect to needed benefits as they rebuild their lives. Both the Bush and Obama administrations recognized it as a best practice in disaster housing response.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló requested DHAP for Puerto Rican evacuees. FEMA refused. Senators with evacuees in their states of Florida, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey made the same request multiple times. FEMA refused. Its murky reasons for denial revolve around a belief that disaster housing recovery responsibilities should devolve to states, a problematic notion for disasters that don’t result in major displacement and completely unworkable for those that do. FEMA has also cited cost concerns; by our estimates, the agency has wasted $150 million by relying on motel vouchers instead of DHAP.
Calling the response to Hurricane Maria “Trump’s Katrina” is, in many ways, an apt description. But this administration’s housing response to Hurricane Maria is worse. Thousands of the lowest income and most vulnerable Puerto Rican disaster victims with uninhabitable homes will soon be at high risk of homelessness. Existing solutions could give them the safety and security of a modest home while they rebuild their lives.
DHAP should be put to use immediately, as it has been for all major disasters since Hurricane Katrina. It’s the least our country can do for our fellow citizens in need.
Diane Yentel is president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.