Time is running out for survivors of Hurricane Maria living in hotels paid for by FEMA

Two Puerto Rican women found refuge and friendship from Hurricane Maria at a Brooklyn hotel thanks to support from FEMA. That funding is running out, but the relationship will endure.
Two Puerto Rican women found refuge and friendship from Hurricane Maria at a Brooklyn hotel thanks to support from FEMA. That funding is running out, but the relationship will endure. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

They came from the same city and shared the same last name. They fled the same hurricane and applied for federal aid. They were strangers, but now they’ve ended up in the same Williamsburg hotel, staring down life, the end of some aid, and the rental market in New York City.

One of them, Alines Hernandez, 44, knew that something was wrong before Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico in September. The problem was with her body. Doctors told her she might have lymphoma. But the hurricane’s blackouts and shortages overwhelmed San Juan’s Centro Medico de Puerto Rico hospital which she had relied on for tests. One of Alines’ appointments got rescheduled for three months later. “I’m coughing blood, I can’t wait,” she remembers thinking. So she came to New York.

Here, she makes the lonely trip to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan once or twice a week. She has been mostly on her own in Brooklyn. Her son sends money to help and is scheduled to visit this summer when he can escape work and medical studies in Puerto Rico. His wife, Alines’ daughter-in-law, came already, helping her from appointment to appointment, test to test, buying a bike to get around town herself. The bike now rests unused against the hotel-room wall.

One day Alines’ daughter-in-law met another young woman also staying in the hotel: also from San Juan, also escaping the hurricane’s effects. This was Ingrid Hernandez, and when Alines’s daughter-in-law left the Hernandezes became friends.

There was an age difference between them: Ingrid, 27, was almost two decades younger. And she was not alone — she has her children, ages one and seven. But there was a connection between Alines and Ingrid, a warmth that passes between the women when the one-year-old is exchanged from arms to arms. Soon the Hernandezes were eating together, taking their minds off health problems and lack of jobs and the future. Alines began babysitting.

There is another difference between the two Hernandezes, joined by chance in Brooklyn: Alines vows to return to Puerto Rico once she receives the medical treatment she needs. She will be with her family again, she says. And she will be with her people, she says, her broken people, putting the island together.

Ingrid, however, wants to stay in New York. Why would she look back? She left a relationship marked by domestic violence, she says. And an island where it’s hard to land work despite her nurse’s training. Here, she is getting certified to practice her craft in New York, and she has found a medical job to start soon. Her seven-year-old, skinny and energetic, is happy in his new school.

Someday there may be an ocean between the women, but temporary is typical for Puerto Rican hurricane victims in NYC. Without housing, many have been forced to navigate the city homeless shelter system. Others have given up and returned home. Some, like the Hernandezes, have hung on in hotels paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These particular grants are temporary and have to be renewed periodically, an agonizing situation. Last week, the assistance program was renewed by FEMA and Puerto Rican Gov Ricardo Rossello for the last time, ending June 30, according to FEMA. So about 150 families in hotel rooms in New York State with FEMA assistance will soon have to find a place to live, perhaps by trying to land other FEMA grants, the chaos wrought by the hurricane ongoing.

Despite these uncertainties, these families and individuals soldier on. They struggle to find work while arranging necessary child care. They tire of not having a space that is their own, a kitchen or a couch.

In that, at least, the Hernandez friends are lucky. They have found themselves in the Pointe Plaza, a relative utopia of a hotel. Its surprisingly large rooms accommodate long stays for those visiting the largely Hasidic neighborhood during Jewish holidays. So rooms have stoves and living spaces, and there are small mezuzahs on doorframes, blessing the space.

Alines did not know what the mezuzah was but she felt that an angel must have looked over her when she ended up at this hotel, where the owner has knocked on doors to check on guests and presented gift cards at Christmas. Alines says she feels at home in the Hasidic neighborhood, safe among “respectful,” “serious” and “noble” families. The kindnesses convinced Alines to look for longer-term housing nearby, as she faces continued tests and doctors and health worries.

She has been searching for an apartment, dragged herself to 15 or so before finding one that fit her budget and accepted her application. With help from family and, hopefully, FEMA to pay the approximately $1,500 rent, she plans to move in soon. It’s not far from the hotel. And if it all works out, she wouldn’t be alone, at least for now: Ingrid has found an apartment in the same building, too.