Senators Doubt That the Virgin Islands Are Hurricane-Ready

Emergency management officials assured lawmakers that the islands are better prepared now than in 2017. Emergency shelters remain scarce at a time when residents still live in fragile homes and may need shelter more than ever.

by A.J. Rao, The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas / June 24, 2019
A destroyed home on the U.S. Virgin Islands shows the effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean. Shutterstock/Nikolas Dellios

(TNS) — Those involved in the territory’s emergency response plan are assuring V.I. lawmakers that the Virgin Islands is better positioned now than it was in 2017.

Senators, however, are expressing doubts — particularly in regard to emergency shelters, which remain in short supply at a time when residents are still living in fragile homes and may need a shelter more than ever.

“We’re even more vulnerable than we were last year,” said Sen. Alicia Barnes, during a Senate hearing of the Government Operations, Consumer Affairs, Energy, Environment and Planning Committee, on Wednesday.

“A large shelter population and spectrum of mass care support is anticipated across the territory due to the number of homes that sustained damage and still have blue roofs or tarps,” she added, citing the after-action report compiled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency following hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Indeed, V.I. Human Services Deputy Commissioner Dale Donovan, who testified before the Senate, said the need for sheltering may increase this year since many are living in homes that were compromised by the 2017 hurricanes.

Moreover, like the homes that were compromised, so too were the primary and secondary shelters that were traditionally used in the past.

“Currently, we’re in negotiations with different public and private entities for additional space for temporary shelters and more long-term shelters,” Donovan said.

The following shelters have been identified for the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season:

  • On St. Thomas, the V.I. Human Services Department’s Sugar Estate Head Start Center and the Lockhart Elementary School.
  • On St. Croix, the V.I. Human Services Department’s Frederiksted Head Start Center and St. Croix Educational Complex.
  • On Water Island, the Water Island Fire Station.

For St. John, Donovan said the department is currently working with government agencies and St. John community representatives to “identify the best sheltering options to satisfy their needs.”

Sen. Myron Jackson said the five shelters identified were “insufficient.”

“We’re not prepared,” Jackson said. “And it’s really concerning to me because I don’t see, given a notification tomorrow, how this is going to work.”

Lawmakers also expressed concern that many who testified Wednesday, including Donovan and V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director designee Daryl Jaschen, had not yet seen FEMA’s after-action report on the 2017 storms.

A 273-page report by the Virgin Islands Hurricane Recovery and Resilience Task Force was also met with puzzled looks.

“I am very disappointed to learn you haven’t [read the after-action report],” said Barnes, who also serves as committee chairwoman. “This should have been one of the first reports that you should have received, as something that would augment a transition report.”

Jaschen said he participated in a “tabletop exercise” with FEMA that covered much of the lessons learned in the after-action report.

Barnes recommended that the lead agencies for all 15 of the territory’s Emergency Service Functions provide VITEMA with an after-action report. After which, Jaschen will provide the Legislature an improvement plan based on all 15 reports.

Barnes also recommended VITEMA, via the Human Services Department, provide a list of shelters requiring repairs and improvements.

Other issues

Wednesday’s hearing revolved around hurricane preparedness, as the 2019 hurricane season — which began June 1 — inches toward its peak months of August and September.

Jaschen cited a projection by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, which forecasted a “near-normal” hurricane season this year, with a likely range of nine to 15 named storms — of which, four to eight potential hurricanes.

“Despite NOAA’s predictions, everyone must remain vigilant and not become complacent,” Jaschen said. “I am reminding everyone that based on the current status of the territory after the 2017 hurricane season, it only takes one minor storm making landfall for it to be a bad year.”

As such, Jaschen recommended that residents implement basic preparedness measures, including making a family disaster plan; building an emergency supply kit that can last up to 10 days; and staying informed of weather systems by registering for Alert V.I. at www.vitema.vi.gov.

Testifiers Wednesday also included Water and Power Authority Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer; Acting Police Commissioner Jason Marsh; Public Works Assistant Commissioner Dennis Brow; Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion and Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner nominee Richard Evangelista.

The Water and Power Authority is continuing to repair electric grids, hardening the electric system and installing composite poles territorywide. To date, there are 108 composite poles on St. Thomas, 107 on Water Island, 742 on St. John and 155 on St. Croix, according to Kupfer.

Improvements to the water system include replacing outdated pipes and pumps, conducting tank inspections and ensuring adequate water storage capacity.

The police department will be assisted by peace officers to offset crime territorywide, assigning officers to specific checkpoints to enforce curfew hours, and purchasing mobile hotspots to access internet service, according to Marsh.

Brow said heavy equipment will be in place, as well as emergency contracts, in the event Public Works needs additional help.

Encarnacion said the Health Department now has access to the joint patient assessment and tracking system, or JPATS, for evacuees.

The department and both hospitals also received sub-grants from VITEMA for communications equipment to support patient evacuation and patient tracking, she added.

Evangelista said Licensing and Consumer Affairs is working to prevent price gouging at businesses, which is prone to happen following a disaster.

The law mandates that at the beginning of every hurricane season, all businesses are required to submit their price lists to Licensing and Consumer Affairs. Prices are frozen at the last prices submitted by a particular business.

— Contact A.J. Rao at 340-714-9104 or email ajrao@dailynews.vi.

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©2019 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR)

Visit The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR) at www.virginislandsdailynews.com

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