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Disaster Recovery

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



Manual worker’s equipment at construction site without people.

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

$384 Million FEMA Grant Boosts USVI School Rebuilding Efforts



The U.S. Virgin Islands will benefit from a significant federal boost, receiving $384.8 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the demolition and reconstruction of hurricane-impacted schools. This marks a critical step in the territory’s ongoing recovery from the devastating effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

This transformative funding will facilitate the complete reconstruction of three elementary schools on St. Croix and one on St. Thomas, in addition to repairs to a school lunch warehouse on St. Thomas. These efforts are a part of FEMA’s continued partnership with the Virgin Islands government and its Department of Education to provide safe, modern educational environments.

Kristen A. Hodge, Director of FEMA’s Recovery Office in the U.S. Virgin Islands, reaffirmed the agency’s dedication to the territory’s educational future. “I am pleased to approve these latest obligations that help bring the Virgin Islands closer to post-hurricane recovery. Our commitment to the future leaders of the Virgin Islands by providing them safe facilities in which to receive their education remains strong,” she stated.

Project Highlights and Funding Specifics:

  • Lew Muckle Elementary School on St. Croix will see prudent reconstruction of seven of its 11 buildings on a 3.94-acre site in Sion Farm.
  • Eulalie Rivera Elementary School, also on St. Croix, will undergo the replacement of 12 structures, including classrooms and facilities such as the athletic field bathroom.
  • Juanita Gardine Elementary School in Estate Richmond, St. Croix, is set for extensive rebuilding, including its auditorium and several auxiliary buildings.
  • On St. Thomas, Leonard Dober Elementary School will have three buildings replaced following severe damage from the 2017 hurricanes.
  • Additionally, repairs to a 7,000-square-foot lunch warehouse on St. Thomas will restore essential functionality and design.

Enabled by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, these funds will allow the V.I. Department of Education to not only rebuild but also modernize educational facilities, merging several schools into updated campuses like Alfredo Andrews and Alexander Henderson Schools. Leonard Dober Elementary School will be closed as it is currently not used for instructional purposes.

The Department of Education expressed its appreciation for this federal aid. “These grant awards signify a pivotal moment for education in the Virgin Islands, allowing for the development of much-needed new schools and the modernization of existing facilities with a focus on equity for all students,” it said.

The department also highlighted the comprehensive nature of the funding. “It is essential to recognize that these grants cover more than construction. They extend to land acquisition, project management, demolition, and design,” VIDE noted. This comprehensive approach ensures thorough planning and execution to meet the highest educational standards.

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Disaster Recovery

Ongoing Recovery Efforts in the USVI Highlighted at Public Finance Authority Meeting



Six years after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the US Virgin Islands in September 2017, the territory’s reconstruction journey continues. At a recent Public Finance Authority (PFA) meeting, updates from various agencies underscored the progress and challenges in the extensive recovery efforts.

The Office of Disaster Recovery, tasked with managing the multi-billion dollar federal aid for the territory’s rebuilding projects, has reported significant strides. As of February, more than $3.2 billion has been spent out of an obligated $10 billion. The agency is racing to ensure all Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projects are obligated by year-end to take advantage of more favorable matching funds requirements set to expire soon. A noteworthy advancement is the recent groundbreaking of the Charles “Tappy” Seales Fire Station and Multipurpose Center.

Stephan Adams, CEO of V.I. Next Generation Network (viNGN), highlighted the particular challenges of funding hurricane restoration projects. He emphasized the strategic management of grants based on available cash flows due to uncertainties in securing matching funds. Adams pointed out the critical importance of protecting the inter-island fiber optic cables’ landing points. “These points are crucial. Any damage there, and St. Thomas could face significant connectivity issues if we see disruptions on St. Croix,” he explained. Despite financial hurdles, Adams reassured that viNGN is committed to using operating funds to prioritize this essential project.

Furthermore, Adams provided updates on broader viNGN initiatives, including the hardening of 24 small roadside buildings that house the network’s communication equipment. These upgrades involve replacing generators and enhancing overall resilience against future storms. He ambitiously aims to complete the majority of viNGN’s FEMA-related projects within the year.

The PFA meeting also touched on tourism recovery. Anthony Ottley, CEO of the West Indian Company (WICO), reported a considerable increase in cruise ship arrivals in 2023 compared to pandemic-affected years. However, figures still lag behind pre-hurricane levels, partly due to the departure of some cruise lines from the port. Ottley remains optimistic, projecting that arrival numbers will normalize next year and announced plans to commence harbor dredging in 2025 to accommodate larger cruise ships, pending federal approvals.

These updates reflect a determined and multifaceted approach to recovery and rebuilding in the US Virgin Islands, signaling a resilient and forward-moving community despite past adversities.

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Disaster Recovery

Progress Reported in USVI’s Hurricane Recovery Efforts



More than two years have passed since Hurricanes Irma and Maria unleashed their fury on the US Virgin Islands in September 2017, leaving a trail of destruction. The territory’s path to recovery was the focus of a recent Public Finance Authority (PFA) meeting where various agencies reported on the strides being made in rebuilding efforts.

The Office of Disaster Recovery, tasked with managing the influx of federal dollars for restoration projects, highlighted significant progress. As of February, it has spent over $3.2 billion of the $10 billion committed to these projects. A critical goal for the agency is to secure obligations for all remaining Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projects by year’s end, to capitalize on more favorable matching fund requirements set to expire soon.

One of the major undertakings mentioned was the Charles “Tappy” Seales Fire Station and Multipurpose Center, which began construction recently.

Stephan Adams, CEO of V.I. Next Generation Network (viNGN), shared insights into the unique challenges faced by his agency, particularly in securing funding. Despite these hurdles, viNGN prioritizes essential projects, such as fortifying the points where inter-island fiber optic cables land. “The resilience of our network is paramount. Damage to these landing points could incapacitate the island of St. Thomas if similar issues arise on St. Croix,” Adams explained, emphasizing the critical nature of these projects.

Adams also detailed efforts to strengthen the infrastructure that supports the islands’ communications systems. This includes enhancing 24 small buildings along the roadsides that house communication equipment, upgrading generators, and bolstering their overall storm resilience.

During the meeting, PFA members were updated on the tourism sector’s status by Anthony Ottley, CEO of West Indian Company (WICO). He noted that while cruise ship arrivals have surged in 2023, numbers still lag behind pre-hurricane figures due to some lines discontinuing visits to the port. Ottley remains optimistic, projecting that arrivals should stabilize by next year. Additionally, WICO is preparing for a major dredging project to deepen the harbor for larger vessels, with work expected to commence in 2025 pending federal clearance.

This assembly underscored the complex yet hopeful journey of recovery for the USVI, as stakeholders across the board continue to work diligently towards restoring and improving the resilience of the territory’s infrastructure.

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