The cutting of a ribbon on Thursday to celebrate the reconstruction of a senior center on St. John had significance beyond that of an obligatory civic ritual.
More than three years after the devastating storms of 2017, Thursday’s event represents the culmination of hard work and collaboration among multiple territorial agencies, the federal government and the private sector to reach an important milestone.
“The center represents the first major recovery project for St. John on the governor’s top 100 list, as well as the first major recovery project for the Virgin Islands Housing Authority,” according to a news release from the V.I. Housing Authority.
The senior center, located at the George Simmons Terrace Housing Community in Estate Adrian, was one of dozens of buildings housing vital community programs that were damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
The Adrian Senior Center has provided space since 2008 for almost 40 seniors to gather for hot meals, recreation and access to services.
Since the building’s destruction in 2017, social service organizations have done what they can to reach out to seniors, but the challenges have been daunting.
Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic the challenges continue, as health protocols designed to protect the most vulnerable members of the community lead to further isolation among the elderly.
With the completion of the 2,000 square foot building, the Department of Human Services can sign a lease with the V.I. Housing Authority, which owns the site. Once the lease with the Housing Authority is signed, Human Services can begin to map out how to safely bring seniors back into the space as well as expand programs geared to the wider community.
The George Simmons Terrace housing community was built as a public housing development in 1985, but it transitioned into a community where tenants became the owners of 26 homes.
At Thursday’s event, officials seemed more inclined to celebrate the achievement than worry about future challenges.
“My uncle used to say, ‘Every day when you wake up, you should stop and ask yourself, what will I learn? What will I create? What Will I celebrate?’” said Adrienne L. Williams-Octalien, director of the Office of Disaster Recovery.
“Today we celebrate the hard work of Robert Graham, Lydia Pelle and others of the V.I. Housing Authority, the leadership of Gov. Bryan, Custom Builders, the Department of Human Services and FEMA,” Williams-Octalien said. “Recovery is not for the faint of heart. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
VIHA awarded Custom Builders of St. Thomas the contract to renovate George Simmons Community Center last May, according to the Housing Authority press release.
“Custom Builders of St. Thomas completed the renovation in seven months for $603,654, giving it a new roof, new ceilings and sheet rock, hurricane windows and doors, new lights and ceiling fans, air conditioning and insulation it didn’t have before, as well as a space for a planned computer facility, new bath and shower and handicapped-accessible kitchen,” the release said.
Under an agreement with the territory, FEMA covers 90 percent of the costs of permanent construction of disaster-related public assistance projects.
Among the officials attending the ceremony was John Covell, who is returning to the islands after officially retiring from FEMA to serve as the agency’s acting recovery director for the territory. St. John residents remember him as the first FEMA official to head up operations on St. John following the storms of 2017.
“I arrived the third day after Irma and stayed for six weeks,” Covell said. “I helped establish the lifelines. I learned to like sardines. I saw the best of humanity. Books should be written about it.”
“It’s critical to have a facility where our older folks can meet comfortably and safely,” Covell said at Thursday’s ribbon cutting.
Officials are hoping that the center will do more than offer programs for the elderly. One plan involves the installation of a state-of-the-art computer center. Another plan involves bringing young people to work with the seniors to build a community garden.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. applauded the plans.
“Education is learned, but wisdom is earned,” he said. A center that can bring together older and younger people in the community can do more than any form of crime prevention, he added.
Bryan spoke about other recovery projects, including generators for Cruz Bay and Coral Bay and the reconstruction of the roof of the Battery in Cruz Bay.
On St. Thomas, residents of Tutu Hi-Rise, which lost 300 units of housing to the storm, will see the first replacement project – a brand new apartment community at Estate Donoe, which is slated for groundbreaking in January, according to Noreen Michael, chairwoman of VIHA’s board.
The demolition of the first five buildings at Estate Tutu is underway, according to Michael. The new master plan for the Tutu community includes approximately 262 new residential apartments, a community center and outdoor recreation facilities.
Michael outlined further plans for St. Croix in a press release. “More recovery projects will follow in quick succession on St. Croix: the rehabilitation and revitalization of rental apartments at Walter I.M. Hodge Pavilion, 110 apartments at D. Hamilton Jackson Terrace, 26 apartments at Alphonso ‘Piggy’ Gerard Place, the new construction of 128 senior apartments and 185 multifamily apartments at a newly purchased site in Stony Ground and at William’s Delight Villas the rehab of 100 single-family homes with improvements to allow for possible homeownership.”
“FEMA approved $83.1 million for recovery projects through its Public Assistance Program last September,” said Michael. “Close to $950,000 of that was obligated to housing. The process of applying for and being reimbursed by FEMA is exacting, requiring thorough documentation at every step. I am proud of our VIHA team for accomplishing this.”
“It has taken a long time and a lot of sacrifices and hard work to arrive at this point in the recovery effort,” Michael continued. “I believe the major projects now at hand will help the territory’s residents recover from the hurricanes not only physically, but also in spirit.”