ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure chaired by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Tuesday, and voted and approved a bill to impose a five-year moratorium to prohibit gas station construction. Senators also received testimony on the status of the disaster recovery projects of the utility infrastructure, residential hardening programs, and the facilities of the Virgin Islands Department of Health, post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria 2017. The approved measure will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.
Lawmakers voted favorably for Bill No. 34-0010- An Act directing the Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to impose a five-year moratorium throughout the Virgin Islands on the issuance of building permits for the construction of gasoline stations. The measure intends to mandate the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to conduct a feasibility study before numerical limitations on the licenses from the Department of Licensing & Consumer Affairs for gasoline stations are imposed and report the findings from the study to the Legislature not less than six months before the numerical limitation goes into effect. Moreover, the bill supports Act No. 8427 to prohibit the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs from issuing a business license for gasoline stations for the next five years upon enactment. Sponsor of the Bill, Sen. Sarauw deemed the bill necessary to close loopholes in the Virgin Islands Code by prohibiting a business owner from obtaining a permit from DPNR to construct a gas station. “In the absence of a Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan, we have to protect the remaining land in the Territory,” Sen. Sarauw said.
The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) Chief Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer shared an update on disaster recovery. To date, FEMA paid $861,908,154 out of an invoice totaling $991,561,035. The outstanding balance totals $129,652,881 of which $44,692,777 is for the local match covered by HUD CDBG Grants. Some of the challenges are inclusive of accessing the HUD local cost-share match, the reduction of FEMA projects due to anticipated insurance proceeds, and HUD restrictions on projects other than the Harley Expansion Project and Composite Pole Projects; according to Kupfer. Post-storms, WAPA has thirty-nine disaster recovery projects. There are twelve Territory Mitigation Projects for the installation of waterline extensions and waterline rehabilitations that commenced in 2021 and are slated for completion by 2025. Kupfer further mentioned that there are twenty-seven Territory Mitigation Projects for electricity inclusive of solar and wind generation, composite poles, asset GPS mapping, underground installation on primary transmission and distribution feeders, and gas-insulated switchgear emergency generator installments. The projects began in 2020 and will conclude by 2024. WAPA Governing Board Chair Anthony Thomas noted that the projects are beneficial to expanding water and electrical services as well as improving the overall quality of the infrastructure post-hurricanes.
The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Daryl Griffith informed policymakers on the status of the disaster recovery regarding the residential hardening programs. The Emergency Home Repair VI Program was completed in April 2019. The program conducted temporary repairs in Phase I and permanent roof repairs in Phase II to enable 24,000 residents to continue living in their homes. Moreover, Griffith indicated that the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery award is an estimated $1,917,977,884. The funds will be available to cover “unmet needs activities” in the infrastructure program, fund hazard mitigation activities, and improvements to the electrical grid. To assist residents with rental and utility costs the Territory was awarded $21,315,497.10 for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The deadline to utilize funds is December 2021. Separately, The Virgin Islands Department of Health (DOH) Commissioner Justa Encarnacion shared an update on the disaster recovery. Encarnacion noted that in collaboration with Witt O’Brien, DOH applied for forty-six FEMA projects, and out of that twenty-five projects were obligated for temporary and permanent repairs totaling $13,313,262.84. Additionally, a total of $93,896.59 were obligated for management costs. To date, DOH expended $733,874.46. Furthermore, Encarnacion indicated that some of the challenges with funding include a long process to obtain obligated funds, delays on projects that are close to the deadline due to lead abatements and/or asbestos, and the new requirements of the BBA review add to project delays. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected the disaster recovery projects which are designed to have a positive impact on the economy.