Aug. 26, 2002 Organizers of a forum designed to raise public awareness about the danger of natural disasters drew about 60 emergency planners and emergency service volunteers to Frenchman's Reef Resort Friday.
The heightened hurricane activity seen in the Virgin Islands in the past decade led officials from V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency to team up with the University of the Virgin Islands's Small Business Development Center to bring the latest advice on protecting homes and businesses from hurricanes and floods.
Until the first of a string of catastrophic storms started showing up in the territory, the concern about hurricanes in the Virgin Islands was only one of passing interest, Roy Watlington, science professor, said. Watlington was one of a dozen panel speakers addressing the forum. A native Virgin Islander growing up in the '40s and '50s, Watlington said, "I really thought nothing natural happened here that was interesting."
But then Hurricane Hugo showed up in 1989, followed by Luis and Marilyn in 1995, Bertha and Hortense in 1996, Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Lenny in 1999. These storms brought hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the territory. Since then the V.I. government has taken several steps to increase safety and reduce the risk of property damage.
But this year, VITEMA Deputy Director Clayton Sutton said, changing times had added new hazards to consider — earthquakes and tsunamis, also referred to as tidal waves. Presenters also addressed the possibility of man-made disasters brought on by acts of terrorism.
"I think [that because of] the cross section of information we got, everyone was able to get something. That was the intent of this particular forum. This year we wanted to make it an all-hazards forum," Sutton said.
VITEMA first started a campaign about four years ago to heighten public awareness about the chance that an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or higher would strike the territory. The last one of that magnitude occurred in 1867 and, scientists say, with an estimated cycle of 100 years, the next big one is now close to 40 years overdue.
Because earthquakes occur suddenly, public awareness is the best form of emergency management, Watlington said. "The person who saves the day when you have an earthquake or a tsunami, unlike a hurricane, is the individual."
The Small Business Center helps put on the forums because, when disasters roll around, it's the SBDC that administers the local emergency disaster loan program, center director Warren Bush said. Among the topics of greatest interest is insurance.
Industry officials speaking at the forum said business and home owners who have proper insurance of the right types can recover quickly after a major storm or other disaster. But the cost of coverage makes the task of keeping insurance ever challenging, with rates increasing up to 200 percent since Hugo.
"Since Hurricane Hugo devastated the Virgin Islands … the cost of homeowners and commercial, home owners and property insurance has increased at an escalating pace," said attorney Glendina Matthew, a representative of the V.I. Office of Banking and Insurance. "The majority of insurance consumers, if not all consumers in the territory, find insurance unaffordable; thus many are unable to protect their properties, their home and businesses against hurricanes and earthquakes."
But this year, Matthew said property and casualty insurance is available and those who still want to buy policies can. Liability, property and casualty insurance are available, said David Ridgeway from the V.I. Insurance Association; but, he said, many businesses fail to take out the one kind of insurance that can help them recover quickly after a disaster.
"Businesses who don't buy business interruption coverage have the insurance to rebuild the building or repurchase the contents, but they don't have the funds to provide for the cash flow to retain their key employees and get through the bridge of the reconstruction period," he said.
Those who stand the greatest chance of recovery are those who can come to work the morning after, turn on the generator and open for business, and Rigdeway said insurance makes that possible.
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