Big stateside corporations paid handsomely for housing and infrastructure rebuilding efforts – and the local agencies charged with their oversight – painted a rosier picture of the territory’s hurricane recovery than members of the Senate are seeing in their districts, two years after sister storms Irma and Maria ravaged the islands.
The Virgin Islands Senate Committee of the Whole drilled down Wednesday on the particulars of some $8 billion in housing and infrastructure recovery projects involving private contractors, such as construction companies AECOM and APTIM, with oversight by the Office of Disaster Recovery (ODR) and the VI Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA).
Lawmakers zeroed in on the rollercoaster ride of recovery news Virgin Islanders consume daily. One day, the territory lands hundreds of millions of dollars to harden utilities, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. A couple of months later, the federal government pumps the brakes because it is not sure the territory has the “capacity” to properly manage such sums of money.
In August, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development temporarily held back on hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster mitigation grants because of questions about a lack of expertise to handle the injection of massive federal assistance.
Daryl Griffith, executive director of the VIHFA, said those federal concerns have been addressed. “The capacity issues were two-fold… The capacity issue that HUD was looking at was the staff of VIHFA. I think we’ve clearly hit the metrics for them” by beefing-up the agency’s financial management team, he said.
Mr. Griffith said the agency also conducts its own assessment of sub-recipients of federal grant money. “In that capacity assessment, we outline their weaknesses and things they need to improve and hand it off to the Office of Disaster Recovery,” he said.
The additional layers of financial management expertise assure the federal government and local taxpayers that money is being handled responsibly. But that “capacity” comes at a cost, administration officials suggested. Exercising capacity by way of forensically scrutinizing invoices and expenditures adds significant time to an already slow recovery.
Sen. Kurt A. Vialet wouldn’t have it. He pointed to tens of millions of dollars in new housing repair and reconstruction funds Government House announced months ago, yet many homeowners are still waiting on help.
“Just about everything we hear about has not been done,” Mr. Vialet told testifiers from the disaster recovery office and the housing finance authority. “We have the money,” the senator said, citing recent announcements from Government House that tens of millions in funding had been obtained for housing repairs.
By way of example, he said, “We have the $10 million homeowners rehabilitation (program). We haven’t spent any of that yet… new construction for homeownership – $10 million. The plan that we have (from Government House) … we have not been able to execute.”
Slow progress toward the full repairs to the Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix, weighed heavily on Sen. Javan James, according to the freshman senator. Adrienne Williams-Octalien, director of the Office of the Disaster Recovery, said originally there was no consideration for the cost of new furniture and medical equipment in the request for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding. As a result, a contract with APTIM had to be amended, adding more time to an already critical project.
Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. said recovery “stakeholders”, including public and private sector recovery experts, were before the Committee of the Whole to gain “needed clarity on ongoing recovery initiatives.”
“I don’t believe that there is consensus on where we are in terms of hurricane recovery, especially when the recovery hasn’t been evenly experienced across all sectors of the community,” Mr. Francis said. “Two years after the 2017 hurricanes, we still have people who are unsure about whether their homes will be repaired and feel overlooked in this recovery process. Our tax base is impacted when local subcontractors aren’t paid and our economic growth – which relies heavily on infrastructure improvement, to include the build-out of our hospitals and schools, has been slow to start.”
In defense of private sector work stood Leo O’Shea, the AECOM corporate program manager overseeing the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority Emergency Home Repairs VI Program and the Virgin Islands Department of Education Temporary Education Facilities Program.
Mr. O’Shea spoke of AECOM’s temporary modular classrooms for the VI Department of Education, “ … which enabled the territory to resume full-day, K-12 instruction. Students are currently utilizing these facilities for the second school year since the hurricanes hit, which has restored a sense of normalcy for families across the territory,” he said.
“It’s important to note that due to our commitment and partnership with the Virgin Islands to meet and exceed rigorous construction schedules, high school seniors were also able to graduate on time,” Mr. O’Shea said.
Mr. Vialet could not disagree more. “I think you guys are just the group that has literally screwed up a lot of stuff.” He said the company entered a $90 million contract with the DOE, “ … and you failed to meet any target dates that you had. And then you come back and tell the government that in order to supply the modular units, we have to pay an additional cost. You want the VI to pay another $100 million extra, despite the fact that we were not late.”
Mr. Francis said he expected his colleagues to take a deep dive into the activities and process of the organizations in managing disaster recovery. “The community deserves to know what is happening with the territory’s disaster recovery. None of this should be a mystery, especially as residents and policymakers alike are making decisions that will have impacts over the short and long term.”
Feature Image: Debris from a gas station destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017 on the west side of St. Croix has yet to be removed. (Credit: Irene Ali Photography)