VITEMA, Senators Tackle Tsunamis, Hurricanes and Each Other

V.I. Territorial Management Agency Director Mona Barnes and senators traded criticisms Thursday at a Senate committee hearing,

Sen. Brian Smith and VITEMA Director Mona Barnes at a legislative oversight hearing Feb. 15, 2018. (Photo by Barry Leerdam courtesy of the V.I. Legislature)

with one senator calling Barnes’ testimony “unjustifiably defiant.”

“We have been very patient with VITEMA,” said Sen. Janette Millin Young, who leveled the claim at Barnes.

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By the end of the hearing, held by the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, however, Millin Young was defending Barnes against a statement made by Sen. Brian Smith that she thought derogatory to women.

Barnes had her own criticisms for senators.

“Let me be clear, it is unfortunate that this committee would feel it necessary to subpoena me to attend a committee hearing when I have never refused to appear to a committee hearing,” she said in her prepared opening statement.

“I have never disrespected this committee or institution, and I have no intentions of doing so in the future,” Barnes continued.

She pointed out that she had been asked to testify before “this body” five times, and three of those five meetings had been postponed or canceled.

Barnes said she was not able to attend a Jan. 12 committee hearing due to the funeral of a family member, and the committee had been notified. She noted that the subpoena issued for Thursday’s hearing had been “served to me at my church as I prepared to worship.”

(See “Stood-Up Senators Resend Subpoenas to Howell and Barnes” in Related Links, below.)

But it was not criticism of the subpoena that got the attention of some senators.

In her testimony Barnes talked about a VITEMA exercise – Vigilant Guard – that had a hurricane preparedness component.

“I must point out that the participation of this branch of government was dismal and substantially low,” she said.

“In the days leading up to Hurricane Irma, VITEMA began operations at all of the territory’s emergency operation centers, commonly referred to as EOCs,” Barnes said. “There, every executive branch department and agency is represented, along with representatives from the judicial branch and the legislative branch. Once again the legislative branch lacked meaningful representation in our EOCs.”

Millin Young said she visited one of the EOCs and was treated poorly.

She asked  VITEMA’s deputy director of planning and preparedness Todd Patton, who was seated beside Barnes, if he remembered her. He said he did not.

Millin-Young said she had asked him questions at the EOC, and he had refused to give her the respect of her office.

Sen. Positive T.A. Nelson questioned whether the presence of senators at EOCs would have been useful.

“At a command center should senators even be there?” Nelson asked. “Is that not for first responders? Would not too many people cause problems?”

Senators also had questions Thursday about the territory’s tsunami warning system.

Barnes said all the system’s poles were blown down in September’s hurricanes and everything was damaged. She said it would cost $1.4 million to replace it. 75 percent of the cost would be covered by the federal government, but the V.I. government would still need to come up with $350,000.

“We are in constant communication with the vendors,” she added.

Smith asked for an explanation of what happened during a tsunami warning in January that many residents did not learn about until it was cancelled.

Barnes said it was not a warning but a tsunami advisory. (See “VITEMA’s Tsunami Advisory Came a Little Late” in Related Links, below.)

An advisory, according to the National Weather Service, indicates “a tsunami with potential for strong currents or waves dangerous to those in or very near the water is expected or occurring.”

A warning, according to NWS, means “Danger! A tsunami that may cause widespread flooding is expected or occurring. Dangerous coastal flooding and powerful currents are possible.”

Sen. Novelle Francis also asked why residents weren’t informed during January’s incident.

Barnes said that an alert was unable to be issued immediately by VITEMA due to problems with the internet, and the advisory was quickly canceled. The problem, she said, was that CNN and Fox News picked up on the advisory and broadcast it, causing panic among some residents.

Barnes was also questioned Thursday about generators VITEMA received after Hurricanes Irma and Maria and how they were distributed.

“VITEMA was offered 18 3,750-watt generators by the Tim Duncan Foundation because we were considered first responders,” Barnes said. “The generators were distributed to VITEMA staff on St. Thomas and St. Croix who demonstrated a need. All other generators that arrived in the territory as part of the response efforts were not in the possession of VITEMA.”

Also present at Thursday’s hearing were Sens. Dwayne DeGraff, Jean Forde, Janelle Sarauw, and Alicia “Chucky” Hansen.

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