Many displaced Puerto Ricans could be moved to U.S. mainland

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The Trump administration is exploring ways to relocate tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland for an extended period as parts of the territory remain devastated more than a month after Hurricane Maria.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development late last week started to develop a plan to provide housing to some of Puerto Rico's displaced population, according to people familiar with the matter. And given the shortage of available options on the island, the possibility of evacuating large numbers to the mainland has emerged as an option.

Two of the people who spoke to HUD officials said using large commercial cruise liners had been suggested to move residents en masse.

The most recent push for a solution began after a meeting on Friday that included officials from HUD, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the White House and others, according to the people. But it's unclear if the White House or any agencies outside of HUD are coordinating with the housing agency, or if the ideas are only being developed within the department for now.

Agency officials in the past two days have contacted executives in the housing industry, investment managers with ties to Puerto Rico, and others in an attempt to brainstorm potential solutions, said the people, who asked not to be named because they weren't authorized to speak to the media.

Thousands of Puerto Rico residents have already fled to Florida and elsewhere since Maria struck as a Category Four storm on Sept. 20. Much of the territory, including the outer islands of Vieques and Culebra, remains without electricity. Potable drinking water is scarce in some areas, and thousands of miles of roads are still closed.

The evacuation idea is in the earliest stages, and given immense logistical challenges it may never come to pass. An orchestrated mass movement and temporary resettlement would require coordination between various parts of the government and a willingness by local communities to house any evacuees, at a substantial cost.

"There is nothing newsy about HUD planning medium and long-term recovery — that's what we always do," HUD spokesman Raffi Williams in an email. He didn't comment on the idea of moving Puerto Rico residents to the mainland.

The White House referred questions to HUD and FEMA.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello's request to FEMA for Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA), in a letter dated Oct. 25, initiated a larger conversation within the Trump administration about the territory's future, including conversations involving HUD, said Susan Phalen, FEMA's director of external affairs.

In a joint statement on Saturday, FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico said implementation of the TSA program is under consideration but that no decision has been made.

TSA funds typically go toward hotel rooms outside areas damaged by natural disasters, but that process is more complicated because Puerto Rico is an island that, because of widespread damage from Maria, has very few habitable hotels.

"We're working closely with the governor to look at a wide range of options because of the logistical challenges of being on an island," Phalen said.

Many residents with the wherewithal to leave have already departed Puerto Rico, which had a population of about 3.4 million in 2016. Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement on Oct. 25 that since Oct. 3, more than 73,000 Puerto Ricans had arrived in the state through airports in Miami and Orlando and through the Port Everglades seaport. The state is operating disaster relief centers for displaced families at those locations.

The island's problems will be longer term. It could take months to restore power to much of the territory after almost the entire electrical grid was wiped out.

After Hurricane Katrina leveled much of New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, more than 145,000 housing units — trailers and mobile homes — were provided to displaced residents. Planned as a temporary measure, the Katrina housing mission lasted almost seven years.

Bloomberg News
Hurricane Maria Housing HUD Puerto Rico