The V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency could find itself strapped for cash during a crisis unless the V.I. government fills VITEMA reserves, Director Elton Lewis said at a Senate hurricane readiness hearing Monday.
The territory’s disaster contingency fund—used primarily to meet local matching requirements for public assistance, hazard mitigation and other Federal Emergency Management Agency grants—is overextended, Lewis said at the oversight hearing of the Government Operations, Energy and Veterans Affairs Committee.
It "does not contain sufficient monies to see us through another hurricane season like last year when we had three declared disasters," he said.
In recent annual budgets, the Legislature has usually appropriated $1.3 million, but the Office of Management and Budget only allotted funds depending upon current needs, Lewis said. Ideally, the fund should have $5 million in reserve, he said.
"Currently, this fund has $3.5 million with $2.1 million of that committed to the three most recent disasters: Hurricane Earl and tropical storms Otto and Tomas," Lewis said.
VITEMA is trying to cooperate with the government to address the present fiscal crisis, but Lewis added that VITEMA is “doing so with the understanding that if an emergency event occurs, the Legislature and OMB will immediately respond."
The 2009 VITEMA reorganization created a fund for immediate emergency response, activating emergency operations centers, pre-positioning supplies, personnel and emergency equipment costs, but no funds have been appropriated, Lewis said.
Meanwhile, VITEMA has completed the final draft of the territory’s updated Hazard Mitigation Plan, which residents can review it and offer feedback at VITEMA’s website: http://vitema.gov/mitigation .
Having the territory-wide plan done gives the territory a powerful organizational tool and guide to help prepare for and respond to a disaster. And it ensures the territory remains eligible for FEMA hazard mitigation and preparation grants, Lewis said.
Meanwhile, the V.I. National Guard has all of its units back home for the time being and is ready to go, according to V.I. National Guard Adj. Gen. Renaldo Rivera.
"Whatever comes, we can respond with a great amount of men and women to take care of it," Rivera said. Currently, there are 833 men and women ready and at his disposal in case of emergency, he said.
Most guardsmen and women would wait out a storm at home, then mobilize immediately afterward as needed, said Rivera. But the Guard’s bases and several forward stations on all three islands will be pre-positioned with supplies and 21 soldiers each before a storm hits, he said.
St. Croix National Guard forward stations are at the Frederiksted, Grove Place, Cotton Valley and Richmond fire stations. On St. Thomas, they are Blue Water Bible College in Estate Bordeaux; Ivanna Eudora Kean High School; Charlotte Amalie High School and the Gramboko Building in Sub Base. On St. John, there is a forward station at the Julius Sprauve School.
The V.I. Police Department and Public Works Department also testified on their preparedness efforts. Police are pre-positioning manpower and materials as usual, and communications are better than they have ever been thanks to the recent opening of new e-911 call centers, said Police Commissioner Novelle Francis. Public Works discussion focused principally on the status of road repairs and efforts to improve road drainage throughout the territory.
No bills concerning hurricane preparedness were before the committee, which was conducting an information-gathering hearing. Present were Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Ronald Russell, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Alvin Williams.
Absent were Sens. Celestino White, Janette Millin-Young and Usie Richards.