OPINION
07/21/2018 08:01 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2018

More Than 1,000 Puerto Rican Families Are Still Living In Hotels After Maria. We Can Do Better.

Liz Vazquez helps her son Raymond Fernandez Vazquez with his homework in an Orlando, Florida hotel room, where they've been l
Alvin Baez / Reuters
Liz Vazquez helps her son Raymond Fernandez Vazquez with his homework in an Orlando, Florida hotel room, where they've been living since being displaced by Hurricane Maria, on December 6, 2017.

In the Hurricane Maria aftermath, the U.S. government has supported hotel stays for Puerto Rican survivors who evacuated to states like Florida, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

At a SpringHill Suites in Queens, New York, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hotel stay program provided shelter for Yanitza Cruz, her husband Joel García and their two children as they began creating a new home for themselves in New York rather than returning to Puerto Rico. And at an Extended Stay America in Florida, Richard Gonzalez declined a government-funded one-way plane ticket back to Puerto Rico, instead choosing to pursue steady employment in Fort Lauderdale so he can support his family back on the island. These hotel stays have become a recurring part of America’s disaster-response toolkit.

Today, 11 months after Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, we should be applauding the success of federally funded and state-implemented programs that create job opportunities and housing options for Puerto Ricans who have chosen to make new lives – and new homes – in states like Massachusetts, New York or Florida. Instead, we are watching an unfolding legal battle in federal court in Massachusetts, where three rulings in the last three weeks have temporarily extended hotel stays for Hurricane Maria survivors still displaced to the continental United States. On Thursday, the hotel support was extended once more, this time until Aug. 7.

Yes, these legal proceedings provide short-term certainty to the more than 1,000 Puerto Rican families still displaced as of July 19. They fail, however, to address the root problem: The U.S. has a disaster system with few permanent relocation mechanisms, even if that’s what the survivors themselves want.

Programs that support the permanent relocation of families after a disaster are something governors and mayors are unlikely to request.

Virtually no elected official will advocate for survivors who wish to make a new home outside of their community, since leaders of disaster-impacted cities and states naturally try to curb outward migration. Elected officials, rightly so, want to maintain their community’s tax base, population and sense of identity as they pursue a speedy path to recovery. And through the concept of local primacy, FEMA supports, not supplants, the wishes of these locally elected leaders.

While America emphasizes the need for survivor-centric recovery programs, the mayors and governors who make requests for federal support are charged with rebuilding their own communities, not helping their residents relocate elsewhere. In an October letter requesting housing support from FEMA, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló described the island’s citizens as “the fabric of the community,” writing “it is critical that any government assistance not encourage people to relocate permanently.” Similarly, nearly a year after Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy, then-Mayor Mike Duggan said, “the single standard a mayor should be defined on is whether the population of the city is going up or going down.”

Unique to Hurricane Maria’s aftermath is the extent to which elected officials from outside Puerto Rico openly debated the types of housing support the island should request. Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson urged the Puerto Rican governor and FEMA to deliver housing support faster, and Florida’s members of Congress requested housing for Puerto Ricans in Florida – roles not traditionally taken by elected leaders of neighboring states. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has even noted the limitations his state faces with its housing programs for Puerto Ricans, despite Florida’s status as a host state.

These Florida officials are embracing the fact that many survivors want to, and do, move after a disaster. This is true not only for Hurricane Maria, but also historically. Following Los Angeles’ 1994 Northridge earthquake, 6 percent of Californians surveyed said it was very likely they would move out of state due to earthquake fears. In 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina, 47 percent of adult New Orleans residents had not returned to the area.

Survivors should be able to choose between programs geared to returning and rebuilding and those providing permanent relocation services.

Support for permanent relocation is not unheard of. Taxpayers have funded relocation for a Pennsylvania town atop an underground coal fire and a Louisiana community suffering from rising sea water.  During the Dust Bowl, a federal agency was created to attempt farmer relocation by the hundreds. But these are the exceptions. Programs that support the permanent relocation of families after a disaster are something governors and mayors are unlikely to request.

Of course, there are important benefits to keeping communities intact after a disaster. Among them is maintaining connections and providing recovery services for disaster survivors who haven’t spread out. Forced relocation should be avoided at all costs. And there is strong evidence that deep social connections and a shared narrative help a community recover more quickly from a disaster. Many people want to return and rebuild their homes, and existing FEMA programs are built to support that.

But not giving survivors the choice between rebuilding programs and relocation programs precludes the possibility that a disaster survivor may have their strongest social and familial network outside the disaster-impacted area. That is why survivors should be able to choose between programs geared to returning and rebuilding, and those providing permanent relocation services.

On Aug. 6, legal proceedings in Massachusetts likely will give families still displaced by Hurricane Maria more clarity about what additional support they can get in the weeks and months ahead. But it will do nothing to create survivor-centric disaster relocation programs that could help these families the most ― programs that America’s current disaster response structure is not built to support.

Michael Windle and Tim Russell are researchers at MIT’s Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab – based within the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics. In full disclosure, they have done research funded by FEMA, including FEMA’s ongoing housing improvement efforts. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and are not meant to reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.

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