Lawmakers Receive Disaster Recovery Update

Chairman Sen. Milton E. Potter opened the Committee of Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure, and Planning hearing on Monday. (Photo courtesy of the V.I. Legislature)

Jenifer O’Neal, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Public Works Commissioner Derek Gabriel provided testimony to lawmakers, giving a breakdown of the status of federal funding for the territory’s disaster recovery projects during Monday’s hearing of the Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure, and Planning. 

According to O’Neal’s testimony, funding came from various sources such as the American Rescue Plan, a total of $740,438,447, and the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act totaling $6,206,237 to the Department of Health.

Funding from the Family First Coronavirus Response Act was provided to the Human Services Department to the tune of $20,474,005, while $249,196 was given to the Education Department. Overall, O’Neal said $542,842,531 was received from the CARES Act and given to 15 government agencies; however, there is still a balance of $100 million.

Sen. Kenneth L. Gittens questioned O’Neal about the remaining $100 million of Cares Act funding, why it has yet to be utilized and what it is going to be used for.

O’Neal said, “All of it — the $100 million — is allocated to various agencies with timelines from July 30, 2024, to Sept. 30, 2026. They have a number of programs already in process so it’s allocated for specific use by specific agencies, awarded by specific federal agencies.”

Sen. Diane Capehart voiced concern about the upcoming hurricane season, asking O’Neal from a financial standpoint about the ramifications if the Virgin Islands is hit with another natural disaster and how it would affect all the open-ended projects.

O’Neal explained that once the funds have already been obligated then they are there to be used in the event of a disaster unless otherwise directed federally. In terms of the open-ended projects, the director said they are in the design phase for extended periods due to a lack of contractors, funding and other issues outside of the central government’s agencies’ control.

Both Senators Ray Fonseca and Franklin Johnson had questions pertaining to road projects, which Public Works Commissioner Derek Gabriel said were attributed to funding issues.

Gabriel explained that when FEMA looks at a project, they don’t look at the entire neighborhood. They approve certain roads that they believe to be damaged. He noted that before his time, there was an $80 million deficit for projects on St. Croix.

Sen. Marise C. James mentioned that the projects on St. Thomas are being completed in a timely manner and gave credit where it is due, but as an elected representative for St. Croix James asked Gabriel why is there a difference in the completion of tasks between the districts. 

“What accounts for St. Croix projects more or less being in design phases a long time? What’s going on there? Does design just take longer,” asked James.

Gabriel said that some of the designs on St. Croix are for the construction of bridges that have to be approved not just by local permitting agencies but also by the Army Corps of Engineers. Stating that he is aware that the projects have been taking quite some time, he expects to be moving forward with them soon, he said.

Among James’ other concerns were the water and sewer projects that have been denied or delayed through HUD and FEMA. Gabriel said the department reached out to FEMA during the last quarter of 2022 to ask for a $30 million advance to push designs forward.

Darryl A. Smalls, executive director of Facilities and Capital Development for the Territorial Hospital Redevelopment Team, also gave testimony, updating the recovery efforts regarding Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center on St. Croix, the facilities that make up the Schneider Regional Medical Center on St. Thomas, to include the Roy L. Schneider Hospital, Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute, and the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center on St. John. 

“The public deserves to have coherent, simplified, and accurate updates as to where the territory stands on this long journey — how federal and local funds are being spent and timelines for the completion of critical projects,” Potter said.

Sens. Milton E. Potter, Diane T. Capehart, Franklin D. Johnson, Kenneth L. Gittens, Carla J. Joseph, Marise C. James, and Alama Francis Heyliger, Ray Fonseca, and Donna Frett Gregory were in attendance at Monday’s hearing.