The U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and the Environment held a formal hearing at St. Thomas’s Legislature Building Monday, where it heard testimony from officials on the federal response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Although the subcommittee – which has oversight of the Departments of the Interior, Energy, and Agriculture, and the E.P.A. – has received updates on disaster response in the V.I. from various agencies, Monday’s hearing was the first time it has met to gather more comprehensive information.
Congressional hearings in the territory are rare but have occurred before. In 2008, for example, the Energy and Insular Affairs subcommittees held hearings on St. Croix, chaired by then-V.I. Delegate Donna Christensen. (See Related Link below)
Although only Plaskett and the subcommittee’s chairman Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) were present for the hearing, a full transcript will be made available to the subcommittee’s seven other members for review.
During the first half of the hearing, Senate President Myron Jackson and Sen. Tregenza Roach gave testimony on what they felt the successes and failures of the federal response to the hurricanes have been. Jackson and Roach were later joined by Senate Vice-President Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly.
The second half of the hearing, which was interrupted by a power outage at the Legislature, featured the testimony of federal officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA,) the Department of Health and Human Services, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Defense, the National Park Service, and the Postal Service.
Local officials stressed several times that the territory is grateful for all federal assistance after September’s devastating hurricanes, but each specified different areas where the response might have been improved.
Jackson mentioned three areas of concern: “chaotic” coordination between different entities managing medical evacuations; a lack of temporary emergency housing for those displaced by the storms; and coordination between FEMA and the V.I. Department of Education that he said “could have been better.”
More than 500 people were evacuated from the territory for medical reasons due to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, 211 of them dialysis patients. Almost 140 of those evacuees remain on the mainland, in Atlanta, according to testimony given by Jackson. As of February, 43 of the evacuees had died.
Jackson said that because responsibility for various aspects of assisting medical evacuees fell to FEMA, DHHS, and the military, medical records and emergency contacts were sometimes scattered.
“We need to consolidate the responsibility for our medical evacuees under one agency,” Jackson said.
During his testimony, Roach highlighted other aspects of the federal response he felt contained gaps.
Roach stressed the need for increased sensitivity on the part of federal responders when dealing with survivors, many of them elderly, going through extreme stresses. Roach said the processes of applying for and receiving federal aid can be overwhelming for the territory’s most vulnerable residents.
He also said a timelier and more efficient process of temporary roof repair by the Army Corps of Engineers would have benefited many residents.
The Army Corps installed 3,658 tarpaulin “blue roofs” after the hurricanes. But Roach said he and many other residents had trouble finding tarpaulin in the weeks immediately after Irma, when Maria was still on its way with additional flooding.
Once the Army Corps installed his blue roof after Hurricane Maria, Roach said, it continued to leak. He said his experience matched the stories of many of his constituents.
“Virgin Islanders are not a begging people. So I, like many others, simply gave up and deployed pots and pan on the floor to capture the flow,” Roach said.
Plaskett, although she was listening rather than testifying, had her own ideas about flaws in the federal response that should be addressed. She said St. Croix’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field offices remain closed, leaving no process for the naturalization of aspiring citizens in that district.
More importantly, she said, because the 2018 storm season is just 80 days, FEMA and the Army Corps have not yet completed plans for removing plant and tree debris from the territory.
Federal representatives and local agencies have released contradictory information about the territory’s debris removal plan in recent months. FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers say the debris is to be shipped out of the territory.
“Just recently the Army Corps of Engineers has asked for contracts in order to have the debris removed from the islands,” said Bill Vogel, regional federal coordinating officer for FEMA. “And we’re awaiting information on that.”
When Farenthold asked him whether FEMA knows where the debris is going to end up, Vogel replied, “That’s in the process of being discussed.”
Vogel’s answer was similar when he was asked by Plaskett about when new modular units for the territory’s schools will arrive. The V.I.’s functional schools are currently on split sessions due to a lack of space to accommodate all the students’ displaced from schools that were destroyed.
Vogel said he could not say when the units would arrive and that the Department of Education would need to be consulted to find out if contracts for the modules’ purchase and delivery have been signed. He said, however, that the contracts are ready and FEMA and Education have “been working very, very hard” to get the modules.
Vogel also said during his testimony Monday that many milestones have been achieved in the past six months that point to the V.I.’s recovery. Chief among them is the 100 percent reconnection rate of all eligible customers of the V.I. Water and Power Authority, with substantial help from 800 linesmen from the mainland.
FEMA has been the lead in recovery efforts that include 55 other federal agencies, and has directed 331 mission assignments in the V.I. since September’s storms. Those mission assignments have cost approximately $698 million, Vogel reported to the committee.
As of March 9, more than $74 million has been provided through FEMA directly to households and individuals for rental assistance, repairs, and other needs. FEMA has also reimbursed the V.I. government more than $260 million for emergency work including debris removal and power restoration.
“We’ll continue to support the territory’s priorities, and we’ll be on the job until the territory tells us when we’ve completed our work,” Vogel said Thursday.
Also testifying at the committee hearing were: Murad Raheem, regional emergency coordinator at the Department of Health and Human Services; Col. Scott Heintzelman, the Department of Defense’s coordinating officer for FEMA region 2; Col. Robert Clark, commander of the U.S Army Corps of Engineer’s Field Recovery Office; Randy Lavasseur, Caribbean National Parks superintendent; and Henry Dynka, manager of in-plant support for the U.S. Postal Service.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that there have been congressional hearings in the territory previously.