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Judge orders housing extension for hurricane evacuees as Puerto Rico, FEMA ignite spat

Hurricane Maria death toll
Hurricane Maria death toll 04:12

A federal judge ordered the federal government on Tuesday to continue providing housing assistance until later this month for hundreds of Puerto Ricans who evacuated after Hurricane Maria. The decision comes as the administration of Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) engaged in a public spat over whether or not Puerto Rico asked the agency for an extension on the evacuees' stay.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman ruled Tuesday that a temporary restraining order will remain in place until midnight on July 23. About 950 residents remain in hotels and other FEMA housing units.

The evacuees sued the government agency because they were going to get kicked out on July 1. FEMA had argued that the Puerto Rican government had not asked for an extension of the program and that Rosselló had agreed to the program's expiration.

But Héctor M. Pesquera, Puerto Rico's public safety secretary, said in a statement that FEMA's claim was "not true." He pointed to a letter from FEMA on May 3 in which the agency agreed to extend the program until June 30 and stated "this will be the final extension of the TSA program and no additional extensions will be considered." FEMA did not respond Tuesday when asked for a response to Pesquera.

On Thursday, Mike Byrne, federal coordinating officer for FEMA in Puerto Rico, confirmed to CBS News that the agency was not willing to grant another extension. Byrne said the governor of Puerto Rico did not push back on that decision. 

David Begnaud questions FEMA official on Puerto Rico housing aid by CBS News on YouTube

Recently, the governor has, according to Byrne, requested more time for displaced Puerto Ricans to take advantage of free transportation back to the island. Of the roughly 1,000 Puerto Rican families still taking advantage of the TSA program, only about 100 have yet to find a permanent housing solution, according to Byrne. 

FEMA has spent $84.1 million on hotels to house Puerto Ricans who were displaced by Hurricane Maria. 

Hillman, the judge in the case, asked both parties for more information about the dispute in his ruling Tuesday.

"I find that further briefing on the issues would be helpful to the Court," he wrote in his decision. "I would like the parties to address the implication of the refusal of the Governor of Puerto Rico to request an extension of the TSA program benefits.

The judge said he would issue a final order by July 23.

CBS News correspondent David Begnaud contributed to this report.

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