ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure led by Senator Janelle K. Sarauw convened in a meeting at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Chambers to receive status updates from the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority and the Water and Power Authority on all disaster related projects, anticipated and underway, in the Territory.
In block one, The Committee received testimony from the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority. Dayna Clendenin, the Interim Executive Director of the VI Housing Authority gave testimony. Director Clendenin gave extensive testimony regarding the status of numerous projects in the territory. Clendenin stated that since she began the role of Interim Executive Director, her goal was to find effective solutions, and conduct a high-level assessment of their disaster recovery progress. She was adamant to establish new processes to speed up recovery in the territory. Director Clendenin stated that it was necessary to streamline many of the processes needed to assist, stating that several things were entirely over regulated. She mentioned how important it was for the Authority to have a reputable company assess the EnVIsion Tomorrow Homeowners and Rental Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Program. She stated that it allowed the authority to look at several processes, to identify what they were doing correctly, as well as what they were not doing correctly.
The Authority spoke about several programs that were created to revitalize and rehabilitate housing stock in the territory, one of which was the CDBG-DR EnVIsion program. In total, $160 million has been allocated to both programs, $135 million to the Homeowner Program, and $25 million to the rental program. Under the homeowner program, a grant of up to $250,000 is given to eligible homeowners for home repair or construction. The recipients are vetted under criteria, including ownership, primary residency, occupancy at the time of the storm, citizenship, and disaster damage. All the applicants must meet the requirements, undergo an environmental tier II review, and have an approved plan of work. After the construction is completed, the applicants receive a one-year warranty. The applicant cannot sell the home for three years. Since launching the program, 675 applicants were assessed for damage.
Of these applicants, 515 homeowners were still active. 420 of these applicants have completed their duplication of benefits review and can proceed further, while 95 are still pending clearance. Of the 515 active clients, 173 are in St. Thomas, 330 are in St. Croix, and 15 are in St. John. 44 construction contracts have been executed to be completed in St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. Of this number, 27 are currently under construction. 10 homes have been completed, accounting for 7 in St. Croix and three on St. Thomas. 140 applicants are delinquent with property tax and cannot proceed until they have cleared. Director Clendenin also spoke about the numerous projects that were proceeding in the territory, including the redevelopment and reconstruction of low-income housing, construction of single-family homes, installation of new WAPA generation, waste management bin sites, long needed street addressing systems, and cruise ship dredging.
Adrienne Williams-Octalien, the Director of the Office of Disaster Recovery, also gave testimony regarding the status of these projects, stating that over 1500 projects were currently underway in the territory. Director Williams-Octalien stated that they worked closely with VIFHA to address critical housing issues in the territory. She mentioned the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power Pilot Program (STEP), which was touted as a success, which was able to provide temporary repairs to more than 6500 homes, and permanent roof repairs to more than 1600 homes. Cooperation with the Water and Power Authority was also mentioned as the authority completes infrastructure repairs and upgrades with the installation of composite poles, new generation initiatives and microgrid projects. Up to $1.4 billion in FEMA public assistance funds have been allocated to assist.
Senator Sarauw reiterated that homeownership was one of the most essential issues of our time.
In block two, the committee received testimony from the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority. Andrew Smith, the Chief Executive Officer of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority gave testimony. CEO Smith was joined by Vernon Alexander; the Interim Chief Operating Officer gave an update regarding an overview of electrical projects in the entire territory. Noel Hodge, the Director of Water Distribution, gave updates for the Authority’s water distribution in the territory. Several of these projects included undergrounding of several feeders on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, respectively. Composite poles, which can withstand winds up to 200MPH have been installed in the territory, with approximately 60% of poles being installed, with full competition in the territory scheduled for 2024. Senator Franklin Johnson voiced concern to CEO Smith, stating that he had tried to reach out to him but was unsuccessful. The senator also voiced concern over water quality issues in St. Croix, voicing concern over rusty water. Noel Hodge, Director of Water Distribution mentioned that old pipes, some of which have been in use since the 1940s, are in the process of being replaced. According to CEO Smith, $43 million has been spent on fuel in the past 7 months.
Senators present at today’s hearing included Janelle K. Sarauw, Kurt A. Vialet, Marvin A. Blyden, Samuel Carrion, Franklin D. Johnson, Carla Joseph, and Steven D. Payne Sr.