Recipients of disaster recovery construction programs are saddled with faulty construction that could put them in jeopardy of losing further assistance because the Department of Planning and Natural Resources lacks the staffing to perform proper oversight, officials of the St. John Long Term Recovery Group told a Senate panel on Monday.
The Long Term Recovery Group is an organization rebuilding homes damaged in the storms of 2017. On Monday, they testified at hearing of the Senate Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure Committee.
“In going through some of these houses in our hazard-mitigation program, we are evaluating some of the houses that were in previous programs and finding some consistent issues,” said Jon Eichner, co-chairman of the group.
Eichner said homes that received benefits through federally funded programs such as the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power Pilot Program have had numerous construction faults, which have resulted in water damage and cracked walls and ceilings.
Group co-chairman Ian Samuel said in 2020 the group was awarded $7.8 million to complete the Hazard Mitigation Grant applied for, which enabled the entity to fix roofs, windows and doors of 97 homes on St. John.
But as the organization continued to engineer the homes for the program, problems caused by previous construction through other federally funded programs began to become apparent.
“We are finding engineering and construction that is not to code and the cost to correct is very costly,” Samuel said. “We are not here to point fingers, we are simply here to identify issues that will continue to plague us if we don’t acknowledge and correct them.”
The organization showed the Senate committee photos of homes that had been repaired in prior programs. Ultimately, the homes could not be lived in due to large construction errors.
Eichner said by bringing attention to the issue the St. John group hoped to “break the cycle of damage and reconstruction.” It starts, he said, “with proper enforcement.”
The photos Eichner presented were accompanied with stories of residents, mostly seniors, who were in grave need of the construction assistance. In one instance, Eichner said a senior was unable to ever move back to her home and had to relocate off island after a hurricane recovery program came in after the 2017 hurricanes and put a roof on her house.
“A nonprofit paid for an architect and engineer to perform site visits and building permits from DPNR were issued,” Eichner said. But the house was never suitable for construction to begin with and should have been condemned.
“By throwing a roof on a property like this you create structural issues,” Eichner said. The house is now laden with cracks that run the length of its walls and ceiling. Ultimately, all the prior program achieved by putting on a new roof was a “false sense of security” and a “monumental waste of funds,” he said.
In another instance, Eichner said, a senior resident had contacted the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to report roofing issues after being a recipient of the STEP program. The senior might not receive further assistance due to a duplication of benefits, a recurring problem the organization and residents alike are having to confront.
“We depend on DPNR to create and enforce the codes that will allow us to be more resilient and prepared to handle the type of storms that we experience,” Samuel said. “When we have to spend private dollars to correct something that we depend on DPNR, to include A&E and construction, it takes away resources to address some of the longstanding titling challenges our residents face.”
“We as taxpayers depend on our government to create systems that protect us, not exploit us,” Samuel said.
Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol reminded the committee that “DPNR is a code-compliant organization.”
“We make sure code compliance is met. Quality control is not the department’s responsibility,” Oriol said. “So, especially when it came to things that were under the STEP program and such, a lot of the quality control measures are there to be addressed by the STEP program and the VIHFA staff. They are the ones paying for the service. Code compliance is what DPNR’s responsibility is.”
But the organization also aired other grievances with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, including zoning issues and penalties.
Chocolate Hole, a luxury property built on the coastline, has accrued multiple Coastal Zone Management violations and built its estate roughly 10 feet from the water’s edge. Samuel said properties like these are not uncommon on St. John and enforcement by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources is needed.
“The enforcement isn’t there, and even when there is proper enforcement, the punishment doesn’t suit the deed,” Samuel said. “There should be some accountability for these actions. A lot of these homes it is simply easier to move forward and build whatever they want, and deal with any potential fines later on because it is inconsequential.”
Samuel said the property, which rents for $15,000 a night, had received only a $9,000 fine for “exceeding roadwork.”
The department has 10 employees dedicated to building permits within the St. Thomas-St. John District and 8 on St. Croix. Oriol said the department is trying to hire for the position, but it is difficult to find a qualified individual who lives in the territory. Of the seven positions needed to be filled, some have been vacant for a year.