Following the hurricanes of 2017, the Virgin Islands Office of Disaster Recovery, a division of the Virgin Islands Public Finance Authority, was created and made responsible for coordinating billions of federal disaster recovery dollars.
Some of the funds go to programs and projects like the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery and Mitigation projects, the EnVIsion Tomorrow Homeowner Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Program and the STEP program.
The 1,500 projects tracked by ODR come with both a hefty price tag and numerous challenges. Despite the challenges, 669 of the 1,500 projects have been completed.
During Wednesday’s Senate Finance Committee hearing, Sen. Marvin Blyden said he agreed with testifiers that the magnitude of the projects is not for the faint of heart.
“As you start spitting out the numbers … all $8 billion plus, and the many, many, many projects that are outstanding and ongoing, hiring challenges, capacity issues and gaps within our organization – it is a challenge,” Blyden said.
Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien said the Government of the Virgin Islands should receive about $8 billion through various federal programs over the next five to eight years – all to aid in the recovery from hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Over half of the funds, nearly $5 billion, have already been allocated to the territory, Williams-Octalien said, of which $1.6 billion has been expended.
As per Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s “Top 100 Recovery Projects,” priority was given to projects that centered on health and hospitals, schools, housing, utilities and roads. Williams-Octalien reported progress in these areas at Wednesday’s committee hearing.
“Work is simultaneously being done to further permanent hospital projects,” Williams-Octalien said. In one month, the contracts with three separate design firms to aid in the planning of the permanent facilities for the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital, Charlotte Kimmelman Cancer Institute, Schneider Regional Medical Center and Myrah Keating Smith Clinic will be completed.
Once the contracts are finalized, the design phase is expected to last anywhere from six to eight months for the smaller facilities and 12 to 18 months for the two hospitals.
On April 7, Williams-Octalien said, the territory received Federal Emergency Management Agency approval for the replacement of the Arthur A. Richards Junior High School, and demolition has begun.
The Gramboko Building Temporary Curriculum Center Project was also obligated on Dec. 1, and construction is in progress for the Wheatley Skills Center Modernization Project, which should be completed by June 2021. Williams-Octalien said that the Gladys Abraham Campus has a pending contract, but construction is anticipated to be completed in June 2021.
One of the greatest delays in funding has not been hospitals or school recovery funds, but road recovery funds, Williams-Octalien said. “ODR has expressed concern to FEMA on the pace of the road projects and the need to gain momentum in obligating funding for the territory’s roads.”
Housing recovery funds have been obligated faster, and, Williams-Octalien said, “Critical housing projects have made significant progress.”
The Virgin Islands Housing Authority has finished the George Simmons Senior Center on St. John, and Williams-Octalien said an opening ceremony is scheduled for this month.
In addition, the demolition of the first five buildings of Tutu Hi-Rise will soon be underway, and bids have been issued to complete roof repairs at Michael J. Kirwan Terrace Community and Paul M. Pearson Gardens.
While strides have been made toward rebuilding the territory’s infrastructure, several challenges remain that require addressing, Williams-Octalien said.
“It is unprecedented that the territory will be building five hospitals, rebuilding/repairing 43 schools, dozens of government buildings and 42 parks and recreational facilities. It is like traffic during carnival. The territory, not just the ODR, must begin preparations to effectively supply what the next few years will necessitate,” Williams-Octalien said.
Sens. Oakland Benta, Blyden, Kurt Vialet, Dwayne DeGraff, Donna Frett-Gregory and Janelle Sarauw were present for the Finance hearing. Sen. Allison DeGazon was absent.