Aug. 5, 2004 – Although the Virgin Islands is designated as a location "vulnerable" to terrorist attack, fewer than a dozen concerned citizens turned out Thursday night for a town hall meeting on St. Thomas called by Delegate Donna M. Christensen to discuss local implications of "The 9/11 Commission Report."
The meeting was the first of three planned, with the others set for Friday on St. John and next Wednesday on St. Croix.
In her opening remarks, Christensen said she believes the United States as a whole is more prepared since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to deal with the threat of "transnational terrorism," but that there is much work still to be done. "We are more aware of the threats, but we are not where we need to be," she said.
Through rounds of questioning from those present, it became clear that what is true for the mainland is true for the Virgin Islands. One individual asked the delegate to score the territory's ability to respond to terrorism on a scale from zero to 100. Christensen replied that "we are over 50 percent."
Daryl "Mousie" George, firefighter, crisis first-responder and leader of the local firefighter's union, gave a much grimmer assessment. "I can tell you that if something happened right now, we'd be running around here like a chicken with its head cut off," he said during an exchange with Christensen.
The 9/11 Commission, created by Congress toward the end of 2002, was charged with preparing a comprehensive account of the circumstance surrounding the terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland and making recommendations on how the nation can guard against future attacks. The 588-page report, released in late July in paperback form, drew global attention and climbed immediately to the top of national bestseller lists.
Chief among the commission's recommendations are:
– The creation of a national intelligence director who would be responsible for overseeing all national intelligence organizations and would report directly to the president.
– The creation of a National Counterterrorism Center to aid in the gathering of intelligence and its dissemination throughout the security and intelligence communities.
– Improving and increasing diplomatic relations with Muslim countries.
– The establishment of a specialized, integrated intelligence security work force at the FBI whose primary focus would be counterterrorism.
Christensen said on Thursday that as a member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security she wanted to hear the thoughts and concerns of Virgin Islanders on the report and related matters before taking part in Democratic Caucus and Homeland Security Committee meetings scheduled.to begin in mid-August in Washington, D.C.
She said the territory's primary areas of vulnerability are the St. Thomas cruise ship port, the Hovensa refinery and a telecommunications hub connecting North America to South America, Europe and Asia that "passes through here."
The level of the Virgin Islands' readiness for attack and the territory's ability to deal with a mass-casualty event were the primary concerns raised by residents Thursday night.
Christensen pointed to recent hazardous materials training for local first-responders and the planned creation of a territorial bomb-squad unit as signs of progress. But she expressed reservations about the ability of the health system to deal with a large crisis. "We simply don't have the manpower or the beds," she said.
Christensen then invited Porfirio Cyntje, Sen. Lorraine Berry's assistant on matters of homeland security, to speak. Cyntje said that in the event of an attack resulting in mass casualties, specifically a chemical or biological attack, the Virgin Islands would have access to the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile. The NPS, he explained, could "within 12 hours" provide medical supplies and equipment sufficient to deal with such an occurrence.
Cyntje also said he believes emergency responders such as the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, Fire Service and Police Department, having been trained to deal with hurricanes and earthquakes, could respond effectively to a terrorist attack.
Community activist Jason Budsan asked about a bill introduced in Congress by Christensen calling for a U.S. Border Patrol unit to be stationed in the territory. "It was about five lines," Christensen told him."Basically it said we want a comprehensive border patrol in the Virgin Islands."
Christensen said she is working on getting more of a U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs presence locally. In terms of federal funding for anti-terrorism measures, "we are doing pretty well" relative to many other jurisdictions, she said.
Several persons raised concern about the new fences and security checkpoints at the ferry dock in Red Hook and the ferry landing on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront. Christensen said they were mandated by the federal Department of Homeland Security but that perhaps, locally, they need to be adjusted.
Christensen also said the territory's comprehensive plan to deal with various kinds of terrorist threats is "a work in progress." She then admitted, under questioning from George, that she has yet to see the plan on paper. "I've seen sections of it," she said, "but never the whole thing."
The Virgin Islands is not as well prepared for an attack as it should be, she said, "but nobody is." The main problem locally, as elsewhere, she said, is "of manpower and funding."
After holding the three town meetings in the territory, Christensen will return to Congress to wrestle with the details of how to address the threat of terrorism in the territory and the nation with her colleagues.
The St. John meeting is set for 6 p.m. Friday at the Legislature Building in Cruz Bay.
The St. Croix meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Gerard's Hall in Frederiksted.
"The 9/11 Commission Report" can be accessed online in .pdf format at the 9/11 Commission Web site. It's available in paperback format at most bookstores, and copies of a summary of the contents are available at Christensen's offices on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John and in Washington, D.C.
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