Denise Lewis, acting director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency, told lawmakers on Tuesday that her department is 100 percent ready for the next hurricane, but highlighted gaps – including a void in leadership – that affect the agency’s ability to respond to disasters.
Lewis led a team of VITEMA officials at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Building on St Thomas, updating the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety on the territory’s disaster preparedness. Their key challenge, she said, is sparse staffing.
“VITEMA currently employs 93 full-time employees,” Lewis said. “Of the 40 vacancies, some are critical to the continuity of the agency … if we had personnel, almost everything else will just fall into place. We have one-third vacant positions. All of our positions , every last one of them, are funded.”
Lewis, who stepped in as acting director in December, said the agency is still awaiting a director, an assistant director, a deputy director of operations, a 911 manager for the St. Thomas district and an Emergency Operations Center coordinator for St. Croix. The director post has yet to be filled by the Office of the Governor, and according to Lewis, she is not in the running as a nominee for the position nor can she fill critical leadership positions.
“We’re a couple of months before hurricane season and we don’t have somebody permanent seated in that particular position, and there’s a possibility it will be somebody new and we’ll be going through a number of changes or change in direction right before hurricane season is about to hit,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX).
According to Lewis, the agency’s challenge in filling the positions lies in finding qualified individuals who can fulfill non-entry level responsibilities. VITEMA employees leave mainly for jobs with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, its national counterpart. Lewis said they are lobbying the executive branch to fill positions that are out of her purview to fill, including critical leadership roles.
Besides the staffing shortage, Lewis said the agency needs to immediately replace its communication vehicles and, in the long term, make sure that the NextGen 911 rollout is fully implemented.
In July 2018, the agency identified six critical areas that presented major issues in the territory during the 2017 hurricane season: communications, point of distribution operations, patient evacuation, sheltering plans, temporary power, and emergency route clearance. To address major gaps in the patient evacuation process, VITEMA applied for and received a Homeland Security Grant to implement a patient evacuation tracking system.
After the 2017 hurricanes, residents had difficulty not only in tracking their medical evacuee relatives, but also in getting them back in the territory. The system VITEMA is working on should streamline the patient tracking process, Lewis said, from initial evacuation to post-evacuation transfer to repatriation.
VITEMA received funding to update components of the communications rooms in the critical Emergency Operation Centers, as well as to to replace computers in the St. Thomas emergency operations centers.
Lewis reported that in the event of a disaster, the territory also has commodities on hand, including water, meals, generators, tarps, sheeting, cots and blankets. On St. Croix, the agency has roughly 270,000 bottles of water; 179,600 meals and 15 generators. The island also has 920 tarps, about 1,000 pieces of sheeting, 480 cots and 1,200 blankets.
St. Thomas has 61,408 bottles of water, 24,960 meals and 26 generators, as well as 509 tarps and 702 pieces of sheeting.
St. John has 39,312 bottles of water and 26,880 meals.
“The commodities will last for five days. However, if there is a storm approaching, there are commodities in St. John, and they’re usually sent prior to the storm arriving,” Lewis said.
Before a storm’s landfall, Lewis said more supplies can be shipped in from Puerto Rico, which saw four new climate-controlled warehouses built after the hurricanes, but Lewis insisted that the territory must have its own climate-controlled warehouse.
With the upcoming Caribe Wave 2019 Tsunami Warning Exercise slated for Thursday, tsunami sirens remain inoperable throughout the territory, according to Lewis. VITEMA has been conducting silent testing of the tsunami alert sirens monthly after the hurricanes, Lewis said, but of the 44 sirens territory-wide, only sirens located in Cramers Park, Lavallee, Lucinda Millin, Enid Baa Library, Bolongo Bay Hotel, Ezra Fredericks Ball Park and Frank Bay tested “green,” which means they are functioning.
Functioning does not mean audible, however. In a November 2018 test, VITEMA found that even though the sirens tested “green,” hurricane damage impacted their audible functions. Through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance program, VITEMA will receive 90 percent of the funding to restore the tsunami sirens; the local government will shoulder the remaining 10 percent, according to Lewis.
As for the status of rebuilding the warning system, acting Territorial Public Assistance Officer Malinda Vigiland-Messer said it could begin in the summer.
“At this time, those project worksheets are still in the development stage,” said Messer. “I suspect they should possibly be out of the system and awarded within possibly the next four to five weeks … basically the vendor has been pretty much selected. It would just be a matter of having the vendor start the project.”
The agency currently relies on Alert VI, its upgraded alert system that provides email and text notifications, as well as mobile, work and home phone calls. The newly boosted system also functions with hearing-impaired devices. The agency also uses FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, that allows VITEMA to delivers alerts across multiple platforms, including cellphones, television and cable.
Lewis urges residents to always remain prepared and to visit the agency’s website for disaster alerts and preparedness tips.