By Nate Raymond
BOSTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday extended an order preventing the eviction of hundreds of Puerto Rican families who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and have been living in hotels and motels across the United States.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Massachusetts, entered an order blocking the federal government for three weeks from cutting off housing assistance to people who were forced to leave their homes because of Hurricane Maria.
The ruling extended a previous temporary restraining order issued on Saturday that was set to expire. The earlier order prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to extend the assistance program until July 5.
The latest order will allow the families receiving vouchers for hotel housing to stay until checkout time on July 24.
Hillman ordered additional briefing to determine whether to grant the evacuees further relief beyond that date and to what extent he should factor in Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello's decision not to request another extension of the program.
FEMA in a statement said it was aware of the ruling and would notify hotels that the program has been extended.
Hurricane Maria, a major hurricane with winds close to 150 miles per hour (240 kph), hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, causing an estimated $90 billion in damage to the economically struggling U.S. territory.
According to FEMA, 962 families displaced by Maria are receiving aid under a program in which they are provided a voucher to seek hotel lodging. Those families include 117 residing in Massachusetts.
The program, which has been in place since Oct. 30, at its peak assisted about 7,000 families, Keith Turi, assistant administrator of the recovery directorate at FEMA, said during a hearing on Monday.
FEMA announced in May that benefits from the voucher program would end on June 30, which would have required evacuees residing in U.S. mainland hotels and motels to check out on Sunday.
Eight Puerto Ricans, most of whom are currently in Massachusetts, filed a proposed class action lawsuit on Saturday, contending FEMA's actions would violate their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.
On Saturday, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the government from terminating the program until Tuesday night. The case was then transferred to Hillman.
Amid the litigation, the number of families in the program has fluctuated from 1,722 on Saturday to 420 on Monday to 962 on Tuesday, FEMA said.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Frances Kerry and Dan Grebler)