In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, hundreds of evacuees from Puerto Rico relocated to our area - but critical benefits from the government are set to expire Wednesday night.
Although these families traveled nearly 2,000 miles to come here, they are U.S. citizens. That's why local, state and federal leaders say it's imperative they receive the help they so desperately need.
Margarita Quintana was huddled inside her home, clutching her family close, when Hurricane Maria roared over Puerto Rico.
"The water came in through the holes of the windows. It was like a horror movie," said Quintana. "You wake up and you see all destruction. You cannot imagine - it was like a nightmare."
Quintana tried to stay and lived for a month with a generator, but the food and gas ran out, so her family boarded a plane bound for Boston - with just a few backpacks.
"In the plane, everybody was crying," said Quintana.
Months later, she calls a hotel in Worcester her new home. Four adults living in about 500-square feet - homeless, impoverished and starting over again at 57.
"Difficult.... very difficult," Quintana told Boston 25 News through tears.
Her hotel room has been paid by FEMA benefits, but on Wednesday, many of those benefits will stop.
"Worst case scenario would be families that are homeless, that we would have nowhere to have them placed," said Worcester City Councilor Sarai Rivera.
Rivera estimates more than 700 evacuees have settled in Worcester. She and others have worked frantically to cobble together an emergency grant that can help bridge the gap.
"Many of them do not have any options, they do not have first and last months' rent, they do not have apartments accessible," said Rivera.
Rivera says while many evacuees - like Quintana - want to return to the island instead, they can't.
"It is clear that many people are not going back to their homes because there is nothing left," said US Rep. Jim McGovern (D) Worcester.
McGovern saw the ongoing devastation in Puerto Rico just a few weeks ago. He's been pushing FEMA to extend the benefits - and some evacuees will now have funding until March 20, but he says it's only a band-aid.
"Things are bad, things are really bad and I think as a community we need to be here for our brothers and sisters," said McGovern.
That quintessential American spirit, the will to help, is what's keeping evacuees like Quintana going, even when she has nothing left but hope.
"I know Puerto Rico is going to be Puerto Rico again," said Quintana.
FEMA has provided vouchers to many evacuees to help them rent apartments, but Worcester city officials say the other challenge is finding enough affordable housing to fulfill the vouchers.
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