ST. CROIX- Members of the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, chaired by Senator Angel Bolques, Jr., convened in a meeting at the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room. Lawmakers were updated on the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, also known as SWOT analysis, for hurricane preparedness programs and projects. Invited testifiers were officials from the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA), the Department of Human Services (DHS), and the Virgin Islands National Guard (VING).
Daryl Jaschen, Director of VITEMA noted that the Hurricane Preparedness Plan commenced in January 2022 with VITEMA, FEMA, and fifteen lead government agencies working in collaboration to identify a total of nineteen initiatives and conduct assessments prior to the start of hurricane season, which begins in June and ends in November. Officials met every two weeks with a primary focus placed on VITEMA and FEMA updating response plans, identifying loopholes, and developing strategies for the local government to work alongside federal partners in the event of a natural disaster. Regarding the provision of shelters in St. John, Senator Bolques stated that the existing shelter can house a maximum of 15 hurricane-displaced residents. This is a major disparity compared to the 5,000 residents of St. John. In response, Jaschen stated that VITEMA is actively looking for strong edifices that can be utilized as shelters during a storm, specifically in Coral Bay. In the interim, DHS will be ready to provide food, blankets, and necessities to individuals.
Some of the key objectives of the comprehensive Hurricane Preparedness Plan are inclusive of emergency temporary power, damage assessments, emergency food, disability integration, the issuance of public warning and communication, commodity distribution, shelters, debris management, patient movements, urban search and rescue, sea and air operations, bed down space for federal responders, disability integration, and assistance from the National Guard; according to Jaschen. Senator Bolques inquired if the VITEMA Information Officer can assist Spanish and Creole-speaking residents and whether telecommunication cellular providers are a part of the hurricane preparedness team. Jaschen indicated that services and resources are in place to assist non-English-speaking residents in the Virgin Islands. Moreover, Jaschen shared that Viya Communications joined the team five years ago. However, cellular service providers such as Liberty/ATT&T and T-Mobile will be invited to attend the meetings as well. Regarding the SWOT analysis, Jaschen said that the strengths are VITEMA’s skilled and dedicated staff, coordination abilities, and continual planning. The weaknesses are the lack of finding and retaining staff, uncompetitive salaries, and the lack of continuity of knowledge shared amongst employees. Areas of improvement are Public Misconception/Image, staff retention, and the need for staff training.
Senators present at the hearing: Angel L. Bolques Jr., Javan E. James, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Marvin Blyden, Dwayne DeGraff, Kenneth L. Gittens, Franklin D. Johnson, and Alma Francis Heyliger. ###