Emergency Planners Urge Vigilance at St. Thomas Exposition

Disaster Prep Expo organizers Julien Henley, Government House liaison for the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Bernita Martin. (Source photo by Judi Shimel)

The relative calm of skies and seas around the Virgin Islands may promote a lull around the annual call for hurricane preparedness. But organizers of an event for senior citizens and disabled residents took on a sense of heightened concern.

A number of government agencies, led by the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency and the Health Department, joined nonprofit groups in staging a preparedness expo at the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center on St. Thomas. According to one organizer, Monday’s event was designed to remind participants how important it is for older residents and those with special needs to plan ahead.

“We wanted to have our seniors and persons with disabilities to be able to come out and start putting together a plan,” said Julien Henley, the Government House liaison for the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The St. Croix expo is scheduled to take place Sept. 16.

Across the United States, emergency managers and disaster planners express similar concerns for their vulnerable populations. The Administration for Community Living shared those sentiments on its website. “Unfortunately, natural disasters can disproportionately impact older people and those with disabilities. These populations are frequently less able to withstand periods of time without food, water, medication, and rest,” the website says.

So far, in 2022, the Virgin Islands has seen little tropical storm or hurricane activity. A system labeled Invest 91L turned into Tropical Storm Earl over the Labor Day weekend, producing heavy rain, winds, and thunderstorms over two days.

About 100 people assembled in the university sports center to gather information and view demonstrations on emergency preparation. Outside in the parking lot, the Health Department van offered free COVID-19 testing and other health screenings. A representative of the Water and Power Authority used a model house hooked up to a power distribution line to explain the hazards that could arise in a disaster.

WAPA also invited expo guests to sign up for their alert system, keeping customers informed about power outages and power restoration. Visitors lined up by the table for the Center for Independent Living for a giveaway of nonperishable food items and other goods.

VITEMA’s Community Affairs Coordinator Yvette Henry showed off her go bag — a travel kit holding essential items and important documents that might be needed if a natural or man-made disaster leads to an evacuation. One visitor asked Henry where she got the sturdy black backpack she used to demonstrate.

Henry said she picked it up at a local store and chose it because it has several compartments to hold different items. Clipped to one zipper was a tiny vial of hand sanitizer.

In two brief verbal presentations, speakers from VITEMA, Human Services, and others ran through some of the things that disabled folks and their caregivers might add to emergency planning lists. An American Sign Language interpreter translated the comments for his hearing-impaired clients.

Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion dropped in after the lunch break Monday to let the gathering know about two special needs shelters run by her agency; one on St. Croix and one on St. Thomas. Those shelters operate separately from those overseen by Human Services, the commissioner said.

By day’s end, Henley used the mic to ask the audience if they had asked all of their questions about disaster preparedness and if they had any more questions to ask. He urged them not to let attending the expo be the last action they take towards making sure they were ready to endure the aftermath of any future disaster that might disrupt their lives.

There were also reminders for seniors and those with special needs to sign up for VITEMA’s emergency notification system, Alert VI.

Participating agencies in the disaster preparedness expo included VITEMA, the Health and Human Services departments, WAPA, the American Red Cross, VIYA, Public Works and Vitran Public Transit, the Office of the ADA Coordinator, Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands, UVI Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, Office of Gun Violence Prevention, St. Thomas Rescue, American Association of Retired Persons, and the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network.