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Disaster Recovery

St. Croix Community Expresses Concern Over Unused Lumber at Alexander Henderson Elementary

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In a recent community gathering on St. Croix, locals raised their concerns with Government House representatives about an untouched stack of lumber that has been sitting at the Alexander Henderson Elementary School since 2018. This material, seen by many as a valuable asset for repairing homes ravaged by hurricanes, has remained unused due to binding federal regulations.

The town hall, held last Wednesday, echoed with the voices of Virgin Islanders who expressed the hurdles they face in securing necessary funding and materials to rebuild their houses after the destructive 2017 hurricane season. A focal point of their grievances was the untouched lumber at the now-inoperative Alexander Henderson Elementary School, a structure that bore the brunt of Hurricane Maria’s fury.

Phillipa Smith-Tyler, a local resident, voiced her observations, stating, “These stacks of wood at the school remain untouched and unused. Many in the community would greatly benefit from using this material to restore their hurricane-stricken homes.”

However, this isn’t a straightforward issue. Governor Albert Bryan shed light on the complexities surrounding the unused material. He explained that the past government had acquired this lumber with plans of re-roofing the school. Yet, when FEMA rejected the intended roofing plan, the strategy was shifted to HUD CDBG. Bryan further elucidated that this lumber is considered federal property since it was purchased with federal funds. He emphasized, “We can’t simply distribute or discard this wood without repercussions. Doing so would obligate us to reimburse the federal government.” He further highlighted that the wood was transferred to the school’s premises after previously incurring rental fees at another storage location. Responsibility for this lumber rests with the V.I. Housing Finance Authority.

Karl Knight, the governor’s Chief of Staff, later provided a more optimistic update, stating that FEMA has now green-lighted a full replacement for the Alexander Henderson Elementary School.

The conversation also drifted to another contentious topic: the Good Hope School. Currently in a dilapidated state, efforts to rejuvenate the school have been stalled due to internal conflicts within its governing board. Governor Bryan hinted at the potential of government intervention, stating, “The Good Hope School holds promise. We see its potential as a training center, among other uses.” He indicated that preliminary talks are in progress with the board regarding a possible governmental takeover. Mr. Knight supported this view, suggesting that the Good Hope School might be an ideal candidate for a proposed initiative targeting abandoned and derelict structures.

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Disaster Recovery

USVI on the Brink of a Recovery Breakthrough with Unprecedented Federal Support

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The Virgin Islands stands at a pivotal moment as President Joe Biden’s approval of an additional $1.1 billion in disaster assistance funding heralds a new era of opportunity for the territory’s recovery efforts. Adrienne Williams-Octalien, the Office of Disaster Recovery’s director, and Governor Albert Bryan celebrated this development during a press conference, marking it as a turning point for the islands.

Governor Bryan, buoyed by the announcement from FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, sees this as a “tremendous opportunity” to overcome the significant financial hurdle of matching federal disaster recovery funds. Traditionally, the territory faced the daunting task of funding a 10% match of federal dollars, which would have required the local government to find approximately $1.5 billion to access the full scope of available disaster recovery grant funding.

After persistent lobbying efforts, which initially seemed to bear no fruit, the tide turned with FEMA’s recent declaration. This breakthrough comes from discussions held in September, as recounted by Governor Bryan, leading to a more favorable cost-sharing arrangement. The Virgin Islands now need to provide only 2% in matching funds for 428 fixed cap projects and 5% for other disaster recovery projects, a significant reduction from the previous 10%.

However, this financial windfall comes with its conditions. To benefit from the adjusted cost share, the territory must obligate all projects by September 2024 and complete them within an 11-year deadline, including critical infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Failure to meet these timelines would see the matching funds requirement revert to the original 10%.

Governor Bryan remains optimistic about meeting these conditions, emphasizing the importance of collaboration and unity in achieving the collective goal of rebuilding the USVI. The strategy involves bundling recovery projects into billion-dollar packages to ensure timely completion and to attract large contracting firms with the necessary resources.

The reduction in required matching funds—from needing $800 million for an $8 billion project scope to now only needing $160 million—represents a significant easing of the financial strain on the territory. This has been made possible by the approval to use Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for federal match requirements, although these funds also have their designated disaster recovery purposes.

Addressing the critical need for skilled labor to support the ambitious rebuilding plans, Governor Bryan highlighted efforts to attract international contractors and pursue “visa waivers” and other initiatives to bolster the local workforce. Despite challenges, including political hurdles in implementing a visa waiver program, the governor’s administration remains focused on innovative solutions to meet labor demands.

With the financial and logistical framework in place for a revitalized recovery process, the Virgin Islands now looks forward to redirecting resources to meet a wide array of unmet needs within the community. Both Williams-Octalien and Governor Bryan are confident in the territory’s path forward, seeing this as an unparalleled chance to rebuild stronger and more resiliently in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria, alongside other ongoing construction projects that promise to transform the islands’ infrastructure for the better.

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Disaster Recovery

Biden Endorses $1.1 Billion Funding Boost for U.S. Virgin Islands, Enhancing Hurricane Recovery Efforts

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In a transformative initiative aimed at bolstering the U.S. Virgin Islands’ recovery from the destructive impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell has announced President Joe Biden’s approval of an additional $1.1 billion in federal funding for disaster assistance within the territory. This decision represents a pivotal enhancement in the federal cost share for eligible disaster recovery efforts, now underwritten at a remarkable 95 percent rate. For projects facilitated under Section 428 Alternative Procedures, the federal cost share has been further increased to 98 percent for a certain period, underscoring the administration’s commitment to the repair and renewal of critical infrastructure and services across the islands.

Prior to this landmark decision, the U.S. Virgin Islands faced the daunting prospect of funding 10 percent of the federally-supported recovery projects, a sum that could have escalated to $1.5 billion against an estimated total of $15 billion in federal funds. Governor Albert Bryan has openly addressed these concerns, highlighting the financial hurdles that threatened the completion of crucial recovery initiatives.

Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett has expressed profound gratitude towards the Biden administration for this significant financial relief, which reduces the cost sharing to as low as 2 percent for key rebuilding projects over the next six months, with a completion window extending over two years, and 5 percent for other projects. This revised financial strategy is poised to empower the Virgin Islands with enhanced federal assistance, thereby facilitating the territory’s comprehensive and timely recovery from hurricane damage.

The adjustment follows productive discussions between Plaskett and Criswell, focusing on the Insular Areas Act’s provisions for federal cost share waivers, the Bryan administration’s analysis of the per capita impact of recent disasters on the Virgin Islands, and persistent advocacy from both Plaskett and Bryan’s office. Their collective efforts have culminated in this favorable amendment to the FEMA disaster declaration, significantly benefitting the Virgin Islands.

By alleviating the financial burden on the territory through increased federal funding proportions, the path to restoring the Virgin Islands’ infrastructure with federal resources post-hurricanes Irma and Maria is now more viable than ever.

This enhancement in federal support, as articulated by Administrator Criswell, aligns with ongoing efforts by President Biden and FEMA to aid the U.S. Virgin Islands in its recovery journey, reinforcing the territory’s resilience against future natural disasters. The initiative resonates with the principles of the Insular Area Act, acknowledging the unique challenges faced by the territory and promoting flexible rebuilding strategies.

Moreover, this increase in federal funding is poised to accelerate the territory’s recovery efforts, enabling the effective allocation of existing Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds towards resilient housing, economic revitalization, and other critical projects aimed at securing a prosperous future for the U.S. Virgin Islands. With President Biden’s authorization, the additional $1.1 billion in funding is a testament to the federal government’s commitment to facilitating a swift, sustainable recovery across the territory.Biden Endorses $1.1 Billion Funding Boost for U.S. Virgin Islands, Enhancing Hurricane Recovery Efforts

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Disaster Recovery

Plaskett Praises Bryan’s Leadership in Utilizing Federal Funds Following His 6th State of the Territory Address

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Following Governor Albert Bryan Jr.’s impactful State of the Territory address on Monday, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett shared her insights with Consortium journalists, commending the Governor’s determination and vision.

“Governor Bryan’s resolve and ability to identify and seize opportunities were evident in his address,” Ms. Plaskett remarked, highlighting his forward-thinking approach.

She also recognized her team’s pivotal role in securing substantial federal funds for the USVI’s recovery. Through their efforts, modifications in legislation have accelerated the availability of these funds.

However, like Governor Bryan, Ms. Plaskett expressed concerns over the swift expenditure of the approximately $8.5 billion in allocated funds. She noted, “Out of this, $3.1 billion has been utilized, leaving over $5 billion yet to be employed.”

Regarding the additional, unallocated $15 billion in federal funds, Ms. Plaskett pointed out the necessity of the territory’s significant contribution, estimated at around $1.5 billion, to meet the matching fund requirements. She is advocating for waivers on these requirements for key infrastructure projects, including schools, hospitals, and police stations. She emphasized the importance of responsible fiscal management, as mandated by Washington, to prevent cost overruns.

Ms. Plaskett lauded Governor Bryan’s commitment to devising a comprehensive financial strategy. “It’s a brilliant initiative,” she stated, while also seeking more details on the implementation. She raised critical questions about the deployment of these funds, especially in light of recent reports about unclaimed federal grants by government agencies.

The congresswoman expressed enthusiasm for the collaborative efforts between the executive branch and the Legislature in realizing these plans. She emphasized the importance of checks and balances, transparency, and sound governance in fulfilling Governor Bryan’s development agenda.

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