ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure, led by Senator Janelle K. Sarauw met at the Earle B Ottley Legislative Hall.
The Committee received testimony from the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources related to all disaster related projects, including marine and historic efforts in the Territory, their respective contracts, inclusive of professional service and task order contracts, both anticipated and underway.
Testimony was delivered by Jean-Pierre Oriol, the Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. Oriol provided updates on the status of various disaster related projects in the territory. The Department received $411,900 from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to provide stimulus funds to artists in the territory. The program ran in two phases and provided a maximum of $50,400 to individuals and $361,900 to arts organizations. 100% of these funds have been dispersed to artists in the territory. The Department also applied for and received $3.96 Million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide stimulus funds to the commercial, recreational, charter for hire and fisher related businesses in the Virgin Islands. Eligible applicants must demonstrate a minimum of 35% loss of revenue between March 2020 and December 2020 to qualify. The Department partnered with the USVI Economic Development Authority to administer the program.
The Hurricane Fisheries Disaster Relief Program was launched in June 2020 and as of May 31, 2022, 438 applications were processed and $6,094,896 in funds were dispersed. Also, disaster recovery funds in the amount of $145,683 to receive emergency vessel kits for all commercial fishers that were affected by the hurricanes. These kits were distributed in May 2022. The Department is also responsible for the VI Historic Recovery Program, which was launched in November of 2020, and the eligibility phase ended on March 31, 2021. 223 Applications for this program were received and 105 of the applications were deemed ineligible. Of 128 eligible applications received, 106 Phase II applications and their external panel reviewed and scored 70 applications, with the remaining to be scored by the end of June 2022. Approximately $1.5 million in projects are awaiting review by the National Park Service, and an additional $1 million in projects to be reviewed by the end of June 2022. Site visits are expected to be conducted by the end of June 2022, with subgrant awards and funding to be awarded by July 2022. Two government projects have received funding under this program, the renovation of Government House on St. Thomas, which is about 95% complete, and the restoration of the former naval barracks in SubBase, St Thomas, which will house the Department of Planning and Natural Resources in the future.
The Department is also responsible for several major infrastructure repair programs in the territory. These include the Charles W. Turnbull Library, the Enid M. Baa Library, the Fort Christian Museum, on the island of St. Thomas, the Brugal Facility, Fort Frederick, the Florence Williams and Athalie Petersen libraries on St. Croix, and the Sprauve Library and the STJ Office Building on St. John. Several mitigation projects are also underway. The Department received 4 different awards in response to the 2017 hurricanes, which included $4.2 million from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, $7.3 Million from FEMA Hazard Mitigation for Code Enforcement, $960,000 from FEMA flood mitigation for the updating of flood regulations, and $800,000 from FEMA hazard mitigation for the completion of storm water management plans.
Senator Sarauw voiced concern about Fort Christian, mentioning its compromised structure when it was closed for repairs, citing recent seismic events. Oriol stated that Fort Christian, being constructed from molasses and sand, needs consistent maintenance.
The NOAA Marine Debris award, which contains three tasks, is being utilized to remove derelict vessels in Krum Bay. St. Thomas, removal of derelict vessels through the territory which are not mitigated by the US Coast Guard, as well as promoting community cleans up to remove debris that was not previously removed after the 2017 hurricanes. The FEMA Flood Mitigation grant was provided so that territorial laws and regulations may be updated to be in line with national standards. Territorial Water Shed plans are currently being developed for watersheds throughout the territory with the funds that were received. The Department also received funding for the acquisition of Parcel No. 6-3-111 Estate Carolina, St. John, which is currently occupied by a home that was compromised by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The intent is to remove the property and to redevelop it to serve as drainage and green space to assist the Department of Public Works with stormwater that comes off Centerline Road.
Senator Sarauw voiced concern over inflation that has been plaguing the territory, particularly as it relates to the status of infrastructure projects with FEMA. The Director of the Department of Disaster Recovery, Adrienne Williams-Octalien, stated that the conversation is going on consistently, stating that cost factors are evaluated on a quarterly basis. Director Oriol mentioned that one of the major problems that has plagued him was increased costs, stating that the Department encounters things that were not seen upon initial inspections. Oriol also voiced concern about keeping projects within budget. In addition, Senator Sarauw also voiced concern over the restoration of the Turnbull Library, voicing concern about student accessibility and incompatible operating hours.
Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Janelle K. Sarauw, Kurt A. Vialet, Marvin A. Blyden, Samuel Carrión, Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Genevieve R. Whitaker.