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

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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

2025 Marks the Anticipated Reopening of the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute

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In a significant step forward for healthcare in the region, the Territorial Hospital Redevelopment Team announced plans for the reopening of the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute (CKCI) by September 2025. Darryl Smalls, the Executive Director for Facilities and Corporate Development, shared the progress report with the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services.

During the committee meeting on Wednesday, Smalls detailed the milestones already achieved in the CKCI project. Notable among these was the groundbreaking event on November 4, followed by the commencement of construction work in March, under the stewardship of J Benton Construction LLC. The project, valued at over $29 million, benefits significantly from a FEMA grant aimed at replacing essential equipment lost to hurricanes. Thanks to updated FEMA guidelines, the agency will cover nearly the entire cost associated with this equipment replacement.

Contractors have made preliminary steps to ensure the construction area is secure and have begun the process of making CKCI a standalone entity by disconnecting it from the Schneider Regional Medical Center. This initial phase is critical to the project’s overall timeline and success.

The update was met with cautious optimism by lawmakers. Senator Milton Potter expressed concern over the project’s ambitious timeline, reflecting a common sentiment among his colleagues. Despite these reservations, Smalls reassured the committee of the contractor’s capabilities and downplayed concerns over the construction phase. However, he acknowledged potential delays in procuring essential items and equipment due to complex global supply chains.

Another point of discussion was the institute’s staffing strategy for its 2025 reopening. Smalls highlighted ongoing efforts by the leadership team to address this challenge, ensuring the institute will be adequately staffed upon completion.

As the CKCI project progresses, it represents a beacon of hope for improved cancer care and treatment facilities in the region, despite the hurdles of logistics and staffing that lie ahead.

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Disaster Recovery

New High-Level Executive Position Announced for USVI’s Super PMO as Part of Rebuild Initiative

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The Office of Disaster Recovery (ODR) is set to enhance the Rebuild USVI initiative with the creation of a Super Project Management Office (Super PMO). This new office aims to streamline the coordination among contractors, government agencies, and other crucial stakeholders in the reconstruction efforts, as unveiled by Governor Albert Bryan Jr. earlier this year. To lead this ambitious subdivision, the ODR is on the hunt for an executive delivery manager, a position that promises an annual salary exceeding $185,000 in reflection of the expertise and leadership demanded.

Adrienne Williams-Octalien, the Director of ODR, highlighted during a recent Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure and Planning meeting that the Super PMO is poised to adopt global best practices. Its core functions will encompass stakeholder coordination, prioritization of master projects, schedule management, and procurement. Furthermore, it aims to ensure resource balancing, program controls, compliance, expedited payment processing, as well as managing design and program risks. The establishment of the Super PMO is expected to yield multiple advantages, such as economies of scale, shortened acquisition cycles, and enhanced opportunities for local small businesses.

Addressing the operational challenges, Williams-Octalien pointed out the limitations of the Department of Property and Procurement (DPP) in handling acquisitions of significant scale and complexity. Despite these hurdles, the DPP is slated to play a crucial support role, focusing on the procurement of locally and federally funded goods and services outside the Super PMO’s scope.

The staffing needs for the Super PMO remain under assessment, with Williams-Octalien providing a candid response to Senator Milton Potter’s inquiry. Initial project bundles, including upgrades to medical facilities on St. Croix and several schools on St. Thomas, will dictate the immediate staffing requirements. The approach to scaling the workforce will be flexible, leveraging contracted labor as necessary to manage the expanding workload.

However, Senator Donna Frett-Gregory raised valid concerns regarding the feasibility of expanding the workforce efficiently under the current bureaucratic system. She urged for a pragmatic strategy that minimizes red tape to ensure the Super PMO’s successful implementation and progress in the USVI’s rebuilding efforts.

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Disaster Recovery

Revitalizing Community Spirit: Florence Augusta Stevens Williams Library to Welcome Visitors on April 9

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The heart of Christiansted’s communal and intellectual life, the Florence Augusta Stevens Williams Library, is poised to reopen its doors, rekindling the flames of curiosity and learning in St. Croix. After a period of reconstruction necessitated by the devastation of 2017’s hurricanes, this cherished institution celebrated its grand return with government dignitaries at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Established in December 1920 and named to honor the first Crucian-born librarian, the library encapsulates the legacy of Ms. Williams, an accomplished, multilingual scholar recognized for her profound knowledge of Caribbean and Latin American history. Over the decades, it has played a pivotal role in the island’s intellectual discourse, hosting an array of cultural and academic events.

Despite repeated challenges, including destruction by hurricanes Hugo, Marilyn, and the combined forces of Irma and Maria, the community’s resolve has seen the library rise anew. This latest restoration has not only revived the structure but has also introduced significant upgrades. According to Jean Pierre Oriol, Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, enhancements include an advanced computer center and the digitization of resources for the visually impaired. A partnership with Danish archivists is bringing colonial archives into the digital era, expanding access to these precious documents.

Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. emphasized the multifaceted role of libraries beyond being mere repositories of books. He highlighted their function as community centers fostering civic engagement and preserving cultural and historical heritage. “A library,” he said, “is a sanctuary where imagination knows no bounds.”

Lieutenant Governor Tregenza Roach shared personal anecdotes of the library’s influence, recalling encounters with Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott and the vibrant exchange of ideas within its walls. “Libraries stand as pillars of civilization,” he remarked, underscoring their integral role in societal development.

Governor Albert Bryan Jr. reflected on the broader societal benefits the library offers, particularly as a haven for the youth, fostering independence and community trust akin to past generations. He sees the library as a vital space for nurturing young minds in a rapidly modernizing world.

Mark your calendars for April 9, as the Florence Augusta Stevens Williams Library reopens, continuing its legacy from Tuesday to Saturday. While operational hours are pending, the promise of renewed community spirit and intellectual growth awaits all visitors.

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