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Federal, Local Agencies Meet to Finalize Emergency Response Plan

June 15, 2006 — Disaster response officials in the territory are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best this hurricane season.
That was the theme of a Wednesday meeting on St. Thomas with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its territorial counterpart, the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA).
FEMA and VITEMA officials, and leaders from the U.S. Army, the V.I. Police Department, the Water and Power Authority, the Department of Public Works and several other government agencies have been meeting monthly to discuss their collective response plan should a hurricane or other disaster strike the territory.
Several officials said they have taken lessons from the last two major hurricanes to hit the islands — Hugo, in 1989, and Marilyn, in 1995 — as well as from Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast region last year.
The territory's preparedness prognosis, overall, was good.
"What's happening here is great," said Federal Coordinating Officer Peter Marinasco, of FEMA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Marinasco is part of a group of about 25 people who would arrive in the region five days before a hurricane to assist territorial agencies in preparing for the storm.
He said there are already emergency trailers, stocked with basic supplies, on St. Thomas, Water Island, St. John and St. Croix.
Marinasco talked to those in attendance about the importance of becoming one unified team in the event of a disaster. That teamwork was already evident, said St. Thomas Administrator James O'Bryan. "I have seen this government mobilize," he said.
O'Bryan said part of the reason the territory is well prepared is because officials have spoken realistically about the challenges and solutions to any disaster. "Any success we have had in the past is because we realistically faced our scenarios," O'Bryan said. "Reality must be our guiding light."
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis said there has been a great deal of discussion about the local and federal responses to Hurricane Katrina. Police department, VITEMA and FEMA officials have all looked at "after-action reports" from law enforcement officials in the Gulf Coast region and have learned lessons from those reports.
"A plan is only as good as its execution," Lewis said.
Lewis said the police department has specific plans set for both essential personnel and supplies in the event of a hurricane.
When Hurricane Hugo hit the territory, Lewis said, the lack of manpower and supplies were significant challenges for the police department. Many of the territory's police officers did not show up for work immediately after the storm because of extensive property damage, and, he said, many of the police department's vehicles were badly damaged.
Now, the department has plans to secure many vehicles out of harm's way, and Lewis has advised essential personnel of their responsibilities. The police department would also assume temporary control over other agencies in the territory that have law enforcement powers.
Lewis also said the territory has an Emergency Mutual Agreement Compact with the U.S. government, in which the territory could request additional police officers from anywhere in the United States, with the understanding that the VIPD would incur those costs.
Hurricane relief funding has been a concern for many who have watched the federal government pass several "emergency" funding bills to cover the costs of Hurricane Katrina.
Marinasco said during the meeting, "I hope that funding doesn't drive preparation." He later added, "Money shouldn't be an issue in saving lives."
Officials at the meeting recommended that residents have a one-week supply of food and other necessities stocked at all times. They also recommended testing generators at full power.
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