Cruz Bay Town Meeting Addresses Disaster Preparedness

Freshman Sen. Ray Fonseca greets participants at Friday town hall meeting in the bandstand at Franklin Powell Park. (Source photo by Judi Shimel)

When a member of the 35th Legislature held a town meeting on emergency preparedness in Cruz Bay Friday night, residents told Sen. Ray Fonseca they were not assured.

Fonseca, a lawmaker from the St. Thomas-St. John district, brought a panel of public safety, health, and social service officials, and emergency managers. He then posed questions about disaster preparedness on St. John and invited members of the audience to join in.

About a dozen residents and nonprofit leaders attended the meeting, held in the bandstand at Franklin Powell Park.

Since the passage of hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, St. John lost the use of its emergency shelter at the Julius E. Sprauve School. The island’s primary health care center — the Myrah Keating Smith Clinic — was infested with mold from water damage.

With help from federal assistance, modular units were built on the clinic grounds. They opened in March 2021 and have served as St. John’s public health care center ever since.

And, as former Senator-At-Large Carmen Wesselhoft said, the island’s communications network collapsed after the 2017 hurricanes struck. Wesselhoft also asked Fonseca why St. John ferry service operators were not invited to the Friday meeting, since ferry operators have played a critical role in past disaster response.

Outside of her service as an elected official, Wesselhoft works with family members to operate a local barge company.

“For years we St. Johnians know the local ferry companies and the barges are the ones that assist in transporting people back and forth, moving goods back and forth, moving equipment back and forth,” Wesselhoft said.

Government officials recognize their value, V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director Daryl Jaschen said, adding that his agency has been working to establish community public-private partnerships to increase their effectiveness.

“The private sector is already here in the community; we’re not having to wait for someone to come down from the states,” Jaschen said.

Fonseca also asked about transportation contingencies, specifically about the St. John ambulance boat. District Fire Chief Clarence Stapleton said an agreement was recently signed with the Virgin Islands Police Department to use one of their boats to transport the sick and injured.

The fire chief added that during a recent incident where the ambulance boat was not available, the Fire and Emergency Medical Service was able to partner with the private sector to secure a temporary replacement vessel.

Jaschen also mentioned transportation help that can be provided by the U.S. Coast Guard with helicopters capable of landing on the helipad at St. John’s Myrah Keating Smith Clinic.

Schneider Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Tina Commissiong updated Fonseca on the availability of morgue services on St. John, in case any disasters produce fatalities.

Human Services’ Mass Care Manager Yvette Henry identified the Adrian Senior Center as the designated emergency shelter. Capacity at the center is limited, she said, and her agency is still looking for other facilities that can serve as shelters on island.

Residents took the opportunity to introduce other topics at the meeting, which lasted close to two hours. When it was over, Fonseca said he wanted to focus on disaster preparedness.

“Most people know St. John doesn’t get the full attention that it needs. We wanted to particularly concentrate on the disaster response. When the Coast Guard closed the dock, they couldn’t even bring bread in; they had to bring bread in from St. Croix. You have to make sure there’s supplies, there’s a stockpile, and there’s a plan to be able to provide assistance,” the lawmaker said.

Serving his first term in the Legislature, Ray Fonseca heads the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services.