Senators ‘Frustrated’ with State of Hurricane Preparedness

Sen. Alicia Barnes expresses frustration with the representative from various government agencies testifying Wednesday on hurricane preparedness. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, USVI Legislature)
Sen. Alicia Barnes expresses frustration with the representative from various government agencies testifying Wednesday on hurricane preparedness. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, USVI Legislature)

Already into the 2019 hurricane season, which started June 1, several senators said they were “frustrated” and “disappointed” about the lack of preparedness of V.I. government entities should another natural disaster strike.

A panel of government agency representatives testify on their departments' hurricane preparedness plans. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, USVI Legislature)
A panel of government agency representatives testify on their departments’ hurricane preparedness plans. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, USVI Legislature)

During Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate’s Government Operations, Consumer Affairs, Energy, Environment and Planning Committee, senators questioned several agencies as to whether they had prepared plans for how to deal with future disasters, and found the answers given from the many agencies in attendance to be less than satisfying. Only a couple agencies reported being prepared with improvements and plans.

The panel was compromised of designees testifying for the following government agencies: V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, Department of Public Works, V.I. Water & Power Authority, V.I. Police Department, Department of Health, Department of Human Services and the Department of Licensing & Consumer Affairs.

Sen. Oakland Benta said that the committee heard a bunch of repetitive discussions, where once the agencies leave the chamber it goes back to the same thing. Here we are, “at the end of the day working on emergency preparedness and we are still at home plate. A lot of the things that should have been done are not done,” Sen. Oakland Benta said.

V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency
Director of VITEMA Daryl Jaschen said the territory is still in a “fragile state” after hurricanes Irma and Maria, and is only equipped to handle a category one or category two hurricane without receiving additional outside help.

When asked for the “after-action report” by Sen. Alicia Barnes, Jaschen could not adequately provide one, which Barnes called “concerning.” The senator noted that per VITEMA’s own documents the report, which provides essential information to the gaps and deficiencies of emergency response and performance during the last hurricanes, should have already been completed and had copies made available to the senators.

Jaschen could only provide what was described as a “tabletop,” which did not adequately cover what the senators had requested.

“The best thing we can ask for you to do at this point is to ensure that your 15 emergency support functions provide you with an after-action report as required by your (VITEMA) territorial emergency operation’s plan,” Barnes said. She requested that after being provided the after-action reports, Jaschen should provide the committee with the improvement plan based on knowledge acquired through the after-action reports.

Department of Health
The DOH has failed to provide adequate shelters for the mentally ill and homeless St. Johnians. The DOH testifiers said while no current shelter was procured, discussions have taken place with Calabash Boom and is being considered. But Sen. Payne questioned the department’s logic.

Payne asked why the department hadn’t taken into consideration the remoteness of the proposed shelter, that roads (which were made impassible for weeks after the last hurricanes) or the fact that there is no cellular reception in that area. Payne concluded Calabash Boom is not a viable option.

Department of Human Services
The DHS is the entity tasked with providing shelters during states of emergency. Sen. Payne pointed out that DHS has no current central data system in place for these shelters, which would provide a means of reconnecting families. Without a central data system, how will the department know how much staff is needed, how many supplies are needed, or how many children or seniors or disabled were within the shelters, he asked.

“Well that is part of our failing and learning curb from the last disaster,” DHS Deputy Commissioner Dale Donovan.

Department of Licensing & Consumer Affairs
Price gouging and contractor’s working under fraudulent licenses were up for discussion with DLCA Commissioner Richard Evangelista. Sen. Payne said during the last hurricanes price gouging got so bad that ice went from $2.50 a bag to $10 a bag.

Evangelista said that the law allows DLCA to freeze prices of goods once the governor declares a state of emergency. DLCA has required retailers to provide documentation at the beginning of each year which lists their product’s prices and will be used during a state of emergency, freezing prices at the last prices provided from the stores as per the submitted documents. Should a store ignore the law, fines will be issued. Barnes questioned if the fines were even a deterrent and said there must be an increase of the fines moving forward.

DLCA also fielded many complaints about contractors who were hired to work on homes after the hurricanes who had presented fraudulent licenses. Evangelista said in the aftermath of future natural disasters, it is imperative the public check contractor’s licenses by either calling the DLCA or going to their website.

The DLCA commissioner also stated that though “everything was in disarray” during the prior hurricanes, the entity aims to improve their process for expediting licenses during the aftermath of any future natural disasters.

Department of Public Works
“I believe there is a lack of improvement in the Department of Public Works,” Public Works Assistant Commissioner Dennis Brow said. “In 2017 I was not territorial so things were done differently on all four island’s. Now I am territorial and I think that lends to consistency, more accuracy and more efficiency. I do believe that the department has improved in that area.”

Brow said the department had been deficient in equipment but now has supplied the four islands, including Water Island, with more equipment. He concluded that he felt the department was now “poised and ready.”

V.I. Water & Power Authority
Executive Director of WAPA Lawrence Kupfer said as far fuel storage is concerned based on the current burn rate, the territory would have a 15-day supply of propane per district. For number two oil, the territory would have a 10-day supply per district. Water supplies would last only 5 days in St. Croix and 12 days for St. Thomas/St. John.

Kupfer said WAPA was still in the process of purchasing backup generators for oil and water distribution pump stations. He added WAPA was still in discussions with private land owners to procure space to stage equipment and provide temporary housing for workers.

V.I. Police Department
Sen. Allison DeGazon asked VIPD officials what was in place for communication procedures after a natural disaster. She wanted to know how homeowners and business owners would call to report looting and other criminal acts.

VIPD Deputy Commissioner Jason Marsh said currently the only process for minimizing looting was to send patrols to business areas and have them stand guard. He concluded that while it is challenging, during the aftermath of a natural disaster they do and will send out patrols to make inspections.