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Hurricane Maria Survivors Still Struggle in Central Florida

Image: FEMA logo, wikipedia.org
Image: FEMA logo, wikipedia.org

Desiree Torres knew exactly what she would do when things fell apart.

She would fasten her baby in his stroller and grab her two other children by the hand. Together, they’d get on a bus for a 30-minute ride to Kissimmee City Hall. Inside, Torres and her kids would find a spot to sit and wait for the help that was promised.

"Where is the help you’re giving me if you’re throwing me out onto the street with my kids?” she asks in Spanish.

In February, it had been five months since Torres and her children survived Hurricane Maria, took a plane to Orlando and ended up in this Super 8 motel room off Highway 192. She thought it would be easier in Florida because local and state officials had promised to do what they could to help the tens of thousands of evacuees arriving from Puerto Rico – some staying with their families, others at local hotels under a federal hotel voucher program.

But it wasn’t easy. Every month, FEMA considered each evacuee’s case for continued hotel assistance.  Many families were approved, but others fell through the cracks. The last time the month's deadline approached, Torres panicked. She found waiting lists for public housing and called local homeless shelters as far away as Tampa to find available space. At one shelter, a receptionist told her it would be a 30-to-90-day wait and asked her if she had a car where her family could sleep.

Maria had taken everything from Torres – her house, her job, her kids’ future on the island. Now, six months later, she was here trying to do what seemed like the impossible – make a home for her family in a place where she can’t afford one.