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Disaster Recovery

Global Unrest Complicates US Virgin Islands’ Pursuit of FEMA Fund Matching Waiver, Warns ODR Chief



The escalating geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe are casting a shadow over the U.S. Virgin Islands’ efforts to secure a critical FEMA matching funds waiver, as communicated by Adrienne Williams-Octalien, the Director of the Office of Disaster Recovery. This waiver is essential for financing the territory’s ongoing disaster restoration projects.

Confronted with the challenge of generating the local 10 percent match for a range of public assistance grants — a sum that could ascend to $1.5 billion and overshadows the territory’s entire budget for the fiscal year 2023/2024 — the USVI is actively seeking an exemption. Despite determined lobbying efforts, the situation is fraught with uncertainty, exacerbated by the current global financial strain.

During a legislative session on Monday, Williams-Octalien shared her apprehensions with lawmakers, underscoring the gravity of the issue. Governor Albert Bryan Jr., steadfast in his commitment, has repeatedly reached out to various federal administrations to advance the waiver plea, as reported by the Consortium. The global discord has unfortunately intensified these complexities, potentially diverting funds and influencing the fiscal prioritization that could affect the waiver’s approval.

“The real issue at hand is the allocation of funds and where the U.S. government chooses to place its financial priorities,” Williams-Octalien remarked, referencing the U.S. financial engagements with Ukraine and Israel. Despite the small scale of the territory and its limited clout, the ODR Director affirmed their resolve to persist in their appeal.

During a Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure, and Planning hearing, questions arose regarding the certainty of securing the waiver and the exploration of alternative strategies. Senator Milton Potter scrutinized the agency’s dedication to this cause. Williams-Octalien recalled previous talks with Shalanda Young, the head of the United States Office of Budget and Management, which focused on the waiver for critical facilities. She admitted the territory’s formidable obstacles and the waiver’s precarious status.

Governor Bryan announced FEMA’s initial rejection of the waiver in early October, yet reassured that the quest for exemption would continue unabated. The ODR Director mentioned FEMA’s recent policy shift to prioritize immediate needs amidst budgetary limitations but expressed optimism due to ongoing constructive dialogues with the agency’s administrator.

The international conflicts pose a substantial threat to the financial strategy of the USVI, according to Williams-Octalien, impacting not just the availability of funds but also the governmental fiscal priorities. This presents a daunting scenario for the USVI as it strives to navigate the broader effects of international tensions on its recovery operations.

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Disaster Recovery

Legislation to Formalize Role of Ham Radio Operators in Emergencies Advances in Senate



In a significant move to enhance emergency communication in the US Virgin Islands, the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety has advanced Bill 35-0175. This legislation aims to integrate amateur radio operators into the territory’s emergency management framework, recognizing their crucial role in disaster response.

The bill proposes the creation of an Auxiliary Communications Unit within the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA). This unit will consist of ham radio operators, who will serve as vital communication links during emergencies. Senator Dwayne DeGraff, the bill’s sponsor, emphasized the historical contributions of these operators in disaster situations, highlighting the need for their formal inclusion in VITEMA.

Celia Kalousek, an experienced ham operator, illustrated the practical benefits of this network, recounting how they were instrumental in warning Coral Bay residents of impending adverse weather post-Hurricane Irma. The proposed unit will initially include 35 ham radio operators, currently part of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES). Fred Kleber, representing these operators, mentioned an upcoming licensing exam to potentially expand this group. He emphasized the adherence to standards, with VITEMA conducting background checks on all participating operators.

Addressing concerns about misinformation risks during emergencies, both Kleber and Senator Franklin Johnson stressed the importance of accurate communication. Kleber also expressed gratitude for the draft legislation’s provision of liability relief for these operators, acknowledging their volunteer status and the prohibition of compensation under their licenses.

Assistant Director of VITEMA, Steven DeBlasio, supported the bill, citing the territory’s unique challenges due to its geographical isolation. He assured that, while unpaid, the ham operators would receive full training, emergency response drills participation, and standard government employee benefits in case of injury.

The bill now moves to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, following unanimous approval from the committee members. This step marks a critical development in strengthening the USVI’s emergency response capabilities, recognizing the invaluable role of amateur radio operators in maintaining communication during crises.

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Disaster Recovery

Spotlight on VIHFA’s Contractor Grievances and Home Repair Delays Continues



The challenges surrounding the VI Slice program were the main focus during the initial segment of Tuesday’s meeting by the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications. Following this, attention gravitated towards the hurdles hampering the V.I. Housing Finance Authority’s EnVIsion Tomorrow home repair initiative. Amidst anxiety over the possibility of federal funds reverting due to slow advancement, contractors voiced their grievances concerning the VIHFA’s procedural and communication issues.

The legislative body found solace when VIHFA Interim Executive Director Dayna Clendinen revealed in March that the pace of work had significantly accelerated. However, during Tuesday’s session, Ms. Clendinen acknowledged that efforts are still on to secure sufficient contractors to tackle the sizable backlog of pending home repairs.

“Increasing our visibility through billboard advertising and engaging national platforms like the National Engineering Institute alongside general contracting and prominent lenders have been part of our strategy to attract developers and contractors,” she elucidated.

The ongoing endeavor to align the workforce supply with the quantum of tasks remains, although Ms. Clendinen affirmed that progress is being made by VIHFA. “Currently, over 407 homes are in the design to rehabilitation phase,” she reported.

Ms. Clendinen pointed out a major hurdle where contractors often delay the agency’s payment process by submitting incomplete payment requests. On a different note, Steven Thibou from Synergy Construction, who testified during the hearing, provided an alternative view.

Mr. Thibou criticized VIHFA’s practices as not being conducive to business, causing contractors to squander resources. “Numerous local contractors, including Synergy Construction, invested considerable resources and time conducting walk-arounds with VIHFA for bid job completions,” he noted. “Yet, communication from VIHFA to contractors was scant, making contractors bear the estimation and bid submission costs, even when jobs weren’t awarded. This resulted in exasperation for both contractors and homeowners.”

Moreover, Mr. Thibou argued that the pay scales by VIHFA fall short. “The costing framework employed by VIHFA for the selection and award process is markedly below the market rates, which, combined with high material and transportation costs, imposes undue strain on contractors,” he remarked.

Senator Marvin Blyden, highlighting the recurrent narrative of contractor and construction labor shortage as the primary bottleneck, sought to delve into the true nature of this shortage. He mentioned interactions with several contractors who possess the necessary credentials yet remain unengaged. “In your view, is the issue about onboarding contractors, or is it about the qualifications of the contractors?” he queried.

Admitting to a misalignment between demand and supply, Ms. Clendinen mentioned the bidding challenge, as bids often overshoot VIHFA’s budget. “Historically, the prolonged payment process has been a deterrent for some contractors. We are tirelessly addressing this,” she shared.

VIHFA’s Chief Engineer, Rupert Pelle, highlighted that Envision program projects don’t necessitate bonding as they are below the $500,000 threshold. Responding to Mr. Thibou’s pricing grievance, Mr. Pelle mentioned a procedural overhaul that has led to better pricing. He detailed how recent and upcoming meet and greet events across the islands aim to clarify this to contractors and address their inquiries.

Senator Blyden suggested the maintenance of a construction specialist database to draw upon when needed, especially since bonding isn’t mandated. He challenged Mr. Pelle’s claim about HUD’s disapproval of a non-competitive process. Drawing from his prior HUD employment experience, Senator Blyden assured that with a justifiable rationale, HUD would likely be amenable. He urged a creative reevaluation of the policy to address this. Senator Dwayne DeGraff cautioned that unresolved program issues could drive individuals to seek shelter outside the territory.

The lawmakers juxtaposed the bureaucratic VIHFA program against the accomplishments of NGO Love City Strong, which has constructed over 35 homes on St. John since 2018. Ms. Clendinen objected to the comparison, emphasizing VIHFA’s obligation to adhere to stringent federal standards, unlike the NGO.

As the hearing concluded, committee chair Sen. Blyden recognized the community’s discontent concerning housing matters in the region. He emphasized the glaring necessity for all stakeholders – financial entities, contractors, government bodies, and others – to unite in devising solutions to the obstacles impeding swift progress and putting federal grant funds in jeopardy of reversion.

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Disaster Recovery

VI Housing Authority Unveils $116.7M Investment for Revitalizing Walter I.M. Hodge Pavilion



The VI Housing Authority, in collaboration with the project contractor, has disclosed a budget of $116.7 million for the extensive restoration of the Walter I.M. Hodge Pavilion. This ambitious initiative targets the refurbishment of 248 apartments, 82 of which have been successfully revitalized in the recently concluded first phase.

The completion of this phase was commemorated with a ribbon-cutting event on Thursday, marking a significant milestone under the auspices of the HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. The expansive renovation blueprint aims to rejuvenate all 248 apartments and 21 structures in the complex by September 2024, ensuring residents have access to contemporary amenities while bolstering the buildings’ resilience to natural calamities.

Positioned at the crossroads of Centerline Road and Sandy Point Road in Frederiksted, the pavilion, constructed in 1971, has weathered many storms. The adversities wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 underscored the imperative for prompt renovations. Utilizing the advantages of the RAD program, the refurbishments aim to optimize operational efficacy and elevate the living standards for the residents.

VIHA’s Executive Director, Robert Graham, articulated their dedication to serving the needs of low-to-moderate income families. The sentiment was mirrored by Michael T. Rooney, the founding principal of MDG Design + Construction, who accentuated the essence of robust partnerships and inventive financing in this endeavor.

The 82 refurbished homes now boast energy-efficient fixtures, contemporary appliances, and aesthetic upgrades. Significant structural improvements encompass wind-resistant façade systems and site beautification, forging a safe and lively living ambiance. Resilience augmentations, incorporating solar photovoltaics and backup generators, bolster the defense against potential storm threats.

Moreover, the project has catalyzed local employment opportunities, with J. Benton Construction steering the way. Community-centric events like job fairs, health days, and art exhibitions have also been orchestrated, nurturing communal camaraderie.

The project’s funding was aggregated from diverse sources, including FEMA, HUD, tax credits, and substantial loans.

As subsequent phases unfold, the anticipation builds for the makeover of additional apartments and communal zones, aligning with the broader objective of attaining the National Green Building Standard Tropical Zone Certification.

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