Merely Torres-Garcia sat in the second-floor conference room at a downtown Hartford Red Roof Inn, and she was bundled up -- wearing two shirts, a zip-up hoodie, a jacket, and gloves. She also had on a pair of Air Jordans which she said is something she wouldn’t wear in Puerto Rico.
“I don’t use that (sneakers),” Torres-Garcia said. “And now I have to do it.”
Even though she hates the cold, Torres Garcia is happy to deal with it for her two kids. They left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria’s storm surge wiped out much of their first floor.
“I [didn’t] have clothes,” Torres-Garcia said. “I [didn’t] have cheese. We [had]—how do you say “Sargaso” in English? Seaweed. I [had] seaweed inside of my house.”
So Merely, her husband, her two kids, and four others took shelter on the second floor, where her mother lived.
“We [didn’t] have nothing,” Torres-Garcia said. “And then my kids said ‘mom, we’re gonna die here. We’re gonna die here. What are we gonna do?’”
FEMA placed her at the hotel in Hartford. In October, the federal agency introduced its “Transitional Sheltering Assistance” program to address a lack of housing for those escaping Puerto Rico for the continental United States. At least seven families were relocated to Connecticut because of the program.
But when we first met, Torres-Garcia was worried that after January 13, when FEMA’s TSA program was set to expire, her family would be left out of the hotel-- with no place else to go.
“It’s not only me and my husband,” Torres-Garcia said. “I have two kids. In January, I don’t know what I’m going to say if FEMA [doesn’t] extend this time. I don’t know what I’m going to say to my kids.”
A FEMA spokesperson told WNPR that not all situations given the “disaster” tag will benefit from the TSA program. It’s up to the governor of that state or territory to ask. It’s also up to him or her to ask for the deadline to be extended.
“We continue to work with the government of Puerto Rico to assess the needs of disaster survivors,” the spokesperson said.
Iliana Santana, 28, was in her really warm room on the hotel’s sixth floor.
“She said she was real cold this morning so she turned on the heat,” said Carmen Cotto, who was helping translate.
Right now, Santana sleeps in one bed while her two children sleep in the other. She’s expecting her husband to join them at the end of the month. When Santana first arrived, she slept with the kids on a deflated air mattress at a friend’s apartment in Meriden. She said she felt unwelcomed and left after one night. Before she got the room in Hartford, she was desperate for housing.
“When I came here I called 2-1-1 and they referred me to a shelter,” Santana said through Cotto, the translator. “I visited the shelter and they told me that they didn’t have space because they had 60 people waiting in front of us. Then they told me that if I didn’t have a plan in place for my kids to stay somewhere that night, they’d call DCF to take my kids away from me.”
To get a face-to-face appointment with the Mercy Housing & Shelter Corporation like Santana did, evacuees need a referral from 2-1-1. Judy Gough, Mercy’s executive director, said that case-workers are “mandated reporters” and thus, are obligated to call the Connecticut Department of Children and Families if they feel a child is in danger.
Santana, determined to do whatever she could to find a place to live after her time at the hotel runs out, recently started a job as a cafeteria worker for East Hartford Public Schools. She’s also pursuing a career in forensic technology so she’s enrolled in an online college.
Santana is helping the other families fill out the paperwork to apply for housing outside of the hotel -- but that’s unlikely to be an immediate solution. Waitlists for low-income housing were already long even before state officials anticipated the arrival of 3,000 Puerto Ricans after the hurricane.
“But everybody’s figuring out how to make it,” Cotto said. “And they’re all just helping each other.”
Cotto grew up in Hartford. After being forced to retire due to chronic fibromyalgia, she left for Puerto Rico.
“And I am here,” Cotto said. “I’m not a happy camper.”
Cotto could’ve lived with one of her three children or with her sister -- who took her parents in. Why didn’t she?
“Because, they’re doing their lives,” Cotto said.
These women share a common thread—they’re humbled by Maria and will do anything to help their family. But they said they won’t be a burden. There’s a Spanish saying for that.
“The dead stinks after three days,” Cotto said.
Unlike the others, Cotto plans to move back to Puerto Rico as soon as possible. She said she’ll leave at the end of January with her parents if they are in good health and power has been restored to her home in Cidra. She wants to help Puerto Ricans get back on their feet.
“If we were able to survive Irma and Maria and still stand strong, we will survive whatever storm comes here,” Torres-Garcia said. “I will move forward no matter what.”
After the story initially aired on WNPR, Torres-Garcia and the other families received good news--they heard that if they individually applied for an extension, they could live at the Red Roof past January 13. And for Torres-Garcia, her family was approved for low-income housing.