FEMA Offers to Airlift Puerto Ricans to Mainland U.S.

David Begnaud et al., CBS News, November 8, 2017

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is offering to airlift victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland to reach temporary housing — a complex operation that would be the first of its kind for the agency.

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Mike Byrne, a federal coordinating officer for FEMA, said the program is the first time the agency has attempted what it calls an “air bridge,” or a relief operation requiring the transportation of individuals from a disaster area. In most disasters, FEMA pays for displaced residents to stay in hotels under the TSA [Transitional Shelter Assistance] program. In Puerto Rico, the hotels are filled to capacity, so FEMA is turning to the mainland and working with states to find accommodations.

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Byrne says agency teams are traveling to shelters on the island to ask longtime occupants about their housing options going forward, telling them about FEMA’s offer. He said the level of interest in the program has so far been low, with only about 30 out of 300 families interviewed on Tuesday expressing interest in participating.

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FEMA says it will work with interested residents and families to develop a comprehensive plan of action before sending them to the mainland, including transportation to and from the airport and coordination to keep families together once they reach the states. FEMA would pay for the flights to and from the mainland.

The extent of the devastation on Puerto Rico continues to hamper efforts to restore power, clean water and basic necessities to residents who remain on the island of 3.4 million Americans. Damage from the storm could eventually total $90 billion, and FEMA has said it has distributed more food and water than any other disaster it has been involved in.

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