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FEMA Preps 'Air Bridge' to Bring Puerto Rican Hurricane Survivors to New York and Florida

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is planning to help Hurricane Maria survivors in Puerto Rico leave the island to stay in temporary housing in New York and Florida.

Typically, FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance Program provides the funding and resources to house those stranded from disasters—be it in a shelter, hotel, or motel—within their state. Flying them out of state and overseas though? That doesn’t really happen. Like ever. Puerto Rico, however, presents a unique situation: Hotels are at capacity, and more than 2,000 people remain in shelters.


So the agency is looking to the U.S. mainland, instead, particularly states that already harbor large Puerto Rican communities, per Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello’s request. Currently, FEMA is in talks with New York and Florida to figure out the logistics to make this happen efficiently.


This would involve creating plans before families fly—on FEMA’s dime—to ensure they stay together and have ground transportation upon arriving at the mainland airports.

“A thousand miles adds a whole level of complexity to this,” FEMA coordinating officer Mike Byrne told CBS News, which first reported this Wednesday.

The thing is, though, people don’t want to leave the island. They don’t want to leave home. By Tuesday, only about 30 out of 300 families the agency asked were interested in taking part in the operation, according to CBS.


“We want to give them every opportunity we can to be able to stay here, whether it’s providing financial assistance or repairing their homes,” Byrne told CBS. “So we are going to work hard on those things so people don’t have to leave.”

That hasn’t stopped people from leaving, nor will it. The Centre for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York estimated, in an October report, that the island’s population will drop by 14 percent between 2017 and 2019.


Schools in New York City have been busy since early October preparing for an influx of Puerto Rican children; so have Florida’s schools. In Orlando, more than 1,300 Puerto Rican students have already joined the classroom. This is before the FEMA operation. Imagine after.

As Newsday reported, New York City’s housing situation is already strained, so it’s unclear how the the city will prepare for even more residents—especially those who don’t have New York family or roots.


Without those ties in place, families in Puerto Rico might be less likely to leave home. But with the island generating just 43 percent of its total power and many homes gaining power only to lose it again, leaving might be their only choice.