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Managing a Decade-Long Effort to Recover from a Hurricane

There will be lessons for others in catastrophic disaster recovery.

As Florida begins the arduous process of recovering from Hurricane Ian, it would be good for them and others to take note of another effort being made, now five years in, to recover from a huge disaster.

The U.S. Virgin Islands disaster recovery is being managed by Adrienne Williams-Octalien, who is the director of the Office of Disaster Recovery for the U.S. Virgin Islands. She is actually dealing, now five years later, with the back-to-back hits by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Both of them were ferocious Category 5 storms that destroyed everything from schools and hospitals to the energy grid and key hotels for the critically important tourism industry. She is what I call a disaster czar, someone who was appointed by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. just weeks after he took office in 2019 and has since been focused on managing upwards of $10 billion in federal disaster recovery funds for well over a thousand projects big and small.

Disaster recovery is not a “shake and bake” type of effort. See their webpage that gives you some quick spending graphs on the funds that were allocated, obligated and expended to date. There is a chart there that shows the division of money by major recovery program areas too.

Emergency managers should note that it’s not an overnight process. Just to go from “allocated” federal funds to “obligated” federal funds can take years of planning and negotiations with FEMA and other U.S. government agencies. Five years after the hurricanes, less than a third of the funds have been spent. Added to that are the unique challenges of tackling supply chain issues and labor shortages on three small islands in the eastern Caribbean. “One consultant’s report said if every able-bodied Virgin Islander were employed in the recovery the Territory would still be 5,000 workers short of effectively spending the allocated funds in the timeliest manner.”

One of the things you can watch for in the future is a Disaster Zone podcast with Ms. Williams-Octalien where we will explore more in-depth her experiences with the disaster recovery process and learn from her experiences in managing a multibillion-dollar recovery process.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.