FEMA awards $3.9M to Restore St. John Research Station

Hurricanes Irma and Maria inflicted heavy damage on the cabins at the Virgin Islands Environmental Research Station at Lameshur Bay.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria inflicted heavy damage on the cabins at the Virgin Islands Environmental Research Station at Lameshur Bay (Source photo).

A historic research station once used by deep sea explorers in the 1960s will be brought back from the devastation it suffered during back-to-back hurricanes in 2017. According to documents produced by the University of the Virgin Islands, federal funding has been approved to restore the Virgin Islands Ecological Research Station, also known as VIERS.

University officials announced in early June a grant award of $3.96 million by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild and restore the research station, located on St. John’s south shore. A portion of an insurance payout made to UVI after the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria will also be used to clear storm debris, repair damaged facilities and replace furniture, fixtures and equipment.

“Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station on the island of St. John in Lameshur Bay sustained major damage to its facilities and infrastructure,” a June 6 statement announcing the grant award stated. It took about six weeks after the September 2017 storms for Dr. Paul Jobsis, director of the Marine Science Division to make his way into the area for an initial inspection.

At the time, researchers said they found fallen trees and buildings pushed off their foundations. Several trees had fallen in the camp once used to house explorers conducting long term studies of coral reefs while living under water, part of the 1968 U.S. Navy Tektite program. But the undersea lab used by the explorers — known as aquanauts — remained intact, said Dr. Kim Waddell, who accompanied Jobsis on the visit.

“Trees were down, but incredibly few of them fell on important buildings. The little bathrooms got hit. One of the weather sheds was smashed,” Jobsis said.

Portions of the Tektite Museum also sustained storm damage.

FEMA officials are currently developing a scope of work plan to use in the restoration process. Once approvals and permits are obtained, the work is expected to take 18 months. Another federal agency, the National Park Service, is expected to put its resources to work arranging the fallen trees into a research station perimeter.

Over the years, scientific research has developed into a vital component of the university’s mission. According to UVI Public Relations Director Tamika Thomas-Williams, the research station hosts local researchers conducting experiments and observations each year and also several researchers visiting from colleges and universities across the U.S.

The non-profit group Clean Islands International has helped to maintain the research station grounds at Lameshur Bay and was one of the earliest advocates for putting the resource back in place after 2017’s two catastrophic storms.