The ongoing disaster recovery work from hurricanes Irma and Maria got a billion-dollar boost from Washington this week. On Friday, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. shared details of new federal subsidies designed to speed the pace of recovery projects.
Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien joined the governor at the Friday press conference held on St. Thomas.
Bryan said the new arrangement allows some repair and reconstruction projects to be funded with a two-percent cost-share match from the V.I.; other projects will require a five-percent cost match. Funds are administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“By now, most of you have heard that President Biden has agreed to subsidize our recovery with $1.1 billion — and it may be more. Through this recovery process it has been a long, hard road and there have been winds all along the way,” Bryan said.
Under the previous arrangement, the V.I. government had to pay a ten-percent cost share to obtain Irma-Maria disaster recovery funds. That meant that if the territory were to receive $8 billion from Washington, it would have to pay an $800 million cost share.
Four hundred projects were completed in the V.I. under the old cost-share arrangement.
Speaking at the press conference, the governor credited the development of Rebuild USVI for helping FEMA agree to the new financing structure. Under Rebuild USVI, the remaining recovery projects will be bundled into $1 billion clusters and matched with large contractors who will direct the work.
There are eight remaining clusters in all, plus disaster recovery projects that have not been obligated yet.
“In order to get that eight billion in project funds we’d have to pay $800 million, and we only had $500 million allotted by (Community Development Block Grant). So now, we move from having to come up with $800 million to only having to come up with $160 million,” Bryan said.
Some of the projects now slated for a two-percent cost share include hospitals, schools, wastewater systems and some infrastructure projects. They are classified by FEMA as fixed-cost recovery projects.
The allotted amount cannot be exceeded, but if projects are completed for less, the remaining funds can be reprogrammed to cover other FEMA-approved work.
Other projects — now eligible for the five-percent cost-share — fall into a different category, the Disaster Recovery director said. “If costs exceed what is obligated, you can go back and ask for more funding,” Williams-Octalien said. “This has allowed us to dig ourselves out of a tremendous hole.”
And previously completed projects may receive funding reimbursements reflecting the new cost-share deal.
All projects covered under the new arrangement will have to be completed within the next 11 years. The Bryan Administration has until September to win approval for the fixed-cost projects expected to reach completion by 2026.
He said outside contractors will be brought in to move projects along, but at the same time, the government plans to ramp up local workforce development programs. That means those youth who are now in high school can look forward to a decade or more of recovery work-related job opportunities if they take advantage of the training.
“If you are a young person listening to this, your future is bright,” Bryan said. The chief executive also thanked Biden for his support.
Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett also thanked Biden in a statement released from her office on Friday. “I am tremendously pleased to announce that President Biden has agreed to increase the federal cost share of all FEMA assistance grants for hurricane recovery in the Virgin Islands from 90 to 95 percent in all cases, including retroactively,” the Delegate said.
“In addition, President Biden has also agreed to raise the federal cost share to 98 percent in the case of larger critical infrastructure rebuilding projects approved before September 30, 2024, and completed before 2026 … This will allow more federal financial assistance to push through the most critical projects so that the territory is given the best opportunity to see our hurricane recovery through to completion in a timely fashion,” she said.
Plaskett also congratulated Bryan and his administration for working consistently alongside top officials at the White House and FEMA to achieve this progress.