June 24, 2004 – The federal government is asking the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency to come up with a new disaster mitigation plan. As part of the process, VITEMA officials are holding a series of public meetings to find out what steps Virgin Islanders believe should be taken to help reduce the impact on the territory of its next hurricane or other major natural disaster.
According to Steve Parris, VITEMA's deputy director on St. Thomas, all of the U.S. territories are being asked to produce new mitigation plans.
The word "mitigation" refers to the implementation of measures and procedures designed to lessen the likelihood or extent of damage when disasters do occur. Examples familiar to Virgin Islanders include the more stringent building code enacted following Hurricane Marilyn and flood plain regulations.
"In 2002 the Disaster Mitigation Act that was passed by Congress and signed by the president said that all territories and communities needed to come up with a disaster mitigation plan, which is a hazard mitigation plan," Parris said on Wednesday. "This one is dealing with natural disasters, whether floods, earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis."
At public meetings on St. Thomas and St. John this week, an outline of the plan development process was presented. A similar meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday on St. Croix — at Gertrude's Restaurant.
The outline lays out the expectations federal authorities have as to how the plan should look and what details it should contain, as well as how often it should be revised.
"If we execute the plan well," Parris said, the territory's federal hazard mitigation funding allotment will be increased. Because St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John have different concerns in the event of a major disaster, it is important for VITEMA to hear from each community separately, he said.
About 20 people showed up for the first presentation, held Tuesday night at the Westin Resort on St. John.
On Wednesday night, about 15 people turned out for the meeting held at Palms Court Harborview Hotel on St. Thomas. They heard from Jacqueline Heyliger, V.I. hazard mitigation officer, and Pieter deJong, an environmental planning consultant with Capital for Information and Planning Alternatives, a consulting firm helping VITEMA craft the V.I. plan.
"This plan must include some overall goals and objectives," deJong said on Wednesday. He said his company wants to review current hazard mitigation regulations governing development, construction and disaster response, and to pinpoint areas that might pose hazards in the event of a disaster.
Separate consideration will be given to hazards that might result from an earthquake, he said. Geological experts have been warning territorial officials for a decade that the Virgin Islands is on borrowed time having not experienced a major earthquake since 1867.
That tremor and the tsunami it spawned killed a couple dozen people in and around Charlotte Amalie and Frederiksted, research indicates. It followed a devastating hurricane two weeks earlier in which about 500 persons died.
The plan is not intended to address man-made disasters, such as events resulting from terrorist acts or affecting homeland security, deJong said. However, these might be added as the plan is revised over the years, he said.
Based on their research findings, the consultants will recommend changes they feel are needed in disaster mitigation policy and will identify steps that they believe will help the territory be better prepared to face the next major hurricane, earthquake, flood or tsunami.
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