With a tropical storm forecast to pass south of the Virgin Islands on Friday, St. John residents can breathe a little bit easier knowing the Human Services Department is working with the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency and community leaders to identify hurricane shelters for island residents.
Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez toured potential facilities on Friday, June 25 and is working now to finalize a report.
Like last year, Human Services is encouraging residents to “shelter in place” or stay with family or friends if their homes are not secure.
Unlike last year, one new site has already been confirmed – the rebuilt Adrian Senior Center. However, with a capacity of 12-15, space is limited.
The cafeteria at the Julius E. Sprauve School is also a possibility, Causey-Gomez said. The school has been used as a shelter for generations, but many of the classrooms were compromised or destroyed by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. “The cafeteria has a capacity of 73, but that number is reduced to 36 when cots are included, and 13 with COVID-19 restrictions,” she said.
One site used in 2017 that is not available this year is the Bethany Moravian Church. Causey-Gomez said the church roof is undergoing repairs.
Following Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, the resort now operated by the Westin became the hub for recovery activities. Many residents moved into hotel and condo units for several weeks until power was restored to Cruz Bay and surrounding areas.
Human Services has approached the Westin St. John Resort this year and it remains a possibility, according to Causey-Gomez. However, the resort now operates under a time-share structure, so “each unit would have to be contacted and/or an agreement would have to be done accordingly,” she said.
Coral Bay residents have been wondering if the Sprung Shelter erected after Hurricane Irma at the site of the former Guy Benjamin School can serve as a shelter. Causey-Gomez said it does not meet the requirements of an evacuation shelter but could be used as a secondary shelter following a storm.
The Gifft Hill School has also been approached to serve as a shelter. “They are willing to be partners for disaster response, but not [function as] an evacuation/secondary shelter,” she said.
Causey-Gomez said Human Services is working with the management team to support both the Calabash Boom Housing Community and Bellevue Village to have residents shelter in place. Both housing communities suffered damage ranging from minimal to severe during Hurricane Irma.
Earlier in June, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, VITEMA, the V.I. National Guard and local government agencies gathered in person and online for five days of workshops “focused on improving the joint response to potential tropical storms impacting the territory this year,” according to a FEMA press release.
Topics covered during the week of discussions included food/water distribution, patient movement, route clearance, debris removal, temporary power and power restoration, emergency responder communications as well as public information and warning.
The purpose was to look at “gaps and challenges,” and address them before the height of the storm season arrives, according to one official who attended.
With the completion of a new roof, the St. John Emergency Operations Center in Susannaberg is fully operational, the official said. Linda Williams, the center supervisor, has recently undergone further training along with other U.S. Virgin Islands officials in New Orleans.