Sept. 15, 2005 While people all over the world respond to news reports of those affected by Hurricane Katrina, local government agencies are getting the territory more prepared for disaster than ever before. In fact, senators were told Thursday, the V.I. is in better shape than it was two years ago in terms of responding to an emergency situation.
"We must realize that we stand the chance of being struck with a force similar to Katrina in the territory especially in the height of this highly publicized hurricane season," V.I. National Guard Adj. Gen. Eddy L. Charles said. Charles, along with several other government officials, was invited to the Committee of the Whole on Thursday to discuss the status of local disaster preparedness efforts.
For example, Charles said the V.I.'s Territory Management Council met for the first time in seven years in June and has had bi-monthly meetings ever since. "At that initial meeting, commissioners and agency heads were briefed for the first time on the nation's Nation Response Plan, and the National Incident Management System," Charles said.
Charles added the V.I. now has a Comprehensive Emergency Operations Plan of its own, which is updated regularly. "This document is on par with national emergency plans used for disasters such as Hurricane Andrew in Florida," Charles said. "It outlines exactly what each agency and department should do in case such a disaster strikes."
In addition, Charles said that emergency supplies are being stockpiled in storage facilities across the territory and Puerto Rico. "We can anticipate that in case of an emergency, we can have the air and sea ways clogged for those things to come in quickly. There's also a maximum 72-hour range for supplies to be brought in from outside agencies."
Charles added that those plans are already in place. As the Federal Emergency Management Agency supplies the territory with packages of food and supplies, they are added to the storage sites. While many have recently been used to feed victims of Hurricane Katrina, Charles assured senators that FEMA replenishes them quickly.
Memorandums of Understanding are also in place with hotels and hospitals in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for shelters and medical attention for residents.
However, a gray area at Thursday's meeting was how much federal money the territory has put away in case of emergency. "About $240,000 or $250,000 from FEMA has been set aside by the Office of Management and Budget for drawdown from government agencies during disasters," said James O'Bryan, administrator of St. Thomas. "But this so-called 'emergency fund' is not enough. There should be more in there."
Charles said that he, along with the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, is also working to get the community involved in individual preparedness efforts. "We've been sending out notices, doing public services announcements, doing everything we can do to keep the people informed about what to do in these types of situations. If the people don't know, that means they haven't come out to see us," Charles said.
Some of those who have spoken to VITEMA representatives are being trained and certified by the agency to be emergency responders in their own communities. "Currently, we have about 500 volunteer responders across the territory," said Harold Baker, VITEMA's state director. "They can help out with what needs to be done in their areas. They've been trained in what to do in specific situations; they've even been given certain equipment."
Baker said VITEMA would continue this process as more volunteers sign up. They've even been working on incorporating businesses and schools in the effort. Baker said the Ritz Carlton alone has 70 employees trained and ready to respond.
Other steps being taken to aid the territory in the event of a hurricane are gut-cleaning programs sponsored by the Department of Public Works, regular meetings between VITEMA and other emergency responders, and the provision of extensive medical, security and response training for individuals across the territory.
In case of a bomb or some form of terrorist threat, Mel Vanterpool, state director of the Office of Homeland Security in the V.I., said that response plans have also been collected from first-responder agencies to be included in a Territorial Policy Plan. While this document has not been completed as yet, Vanterpool said a copy should be provided to the federal office by November for approval.
Vanterpool added that he is trying to get private search-and-rescue teams across the territory to be recognized by the federal government. Presently, teams in the V.I. are comprised of private citizens who still need to complete certain types of training to be fully prepared for "unforeseen" situations.
In terms of supplies for this kind of emergency, Baker added that VITEMA has been working with merchants to keep extra supplies in their stores at all times. To date, Baker said that he has obtained cooperation from 17 businesses, including Plaza Extra supermarket on St. Thomas, to keep 30 days worth of food for residents in storage.
Responding to questions from senators about evacuation situations, Vanterpool also said his organization has been in regular contact with the V.I. Police Department so they are trained to take the lead. Additionally, Vanterpool said that Hazardous Material (Haz Mat) teams have been put in place in both districts to respond to any kind of toxic spill or bioterrorist threat.
Julien A. Harley, administrator of St. John, put his two cents into the discussion by being more realistic. "In case of a bomb or that kind of threat, we would call in Fire Services, have them evacuate the residents and then run like hell," Harley said.
The Water and Power Authority and Innovative Communications Corp. provided testimony later in the afternoon, telling senators very few of their water, power and communications lines are underground.
"It would be horribly expensive to do all that undergrounding we have buried only our most critical lines," said Dave Sharp, the ICC representative. "But we have continued to work with all the government agencies and departments to have everything prepared on our side in case of an emergency."
Sharp told Sen. Lorraine L. Berry this includes trying to provide the VIPD with equipment to identify callers when bomb threats are phoned in. Sharp said that while ICC used to provide that service, the 911 system currently needs to be upgraded before it can be installed again.
Alberto Bruno-Vega, WAPA's executive director, also said that undergrounding lines was expensive, but efforts are ongoing to get the town area on each island set up in that capacity. Lines from WAPA's plants to all hospitals and airports have been undergrounded already, and work has started in the Frederiksted area of St. Croix. Bruno-Vega added that WAPA has already put in a $4 million request to the Public Services Commission to get lines underground in Charlotte Amalie and Christiansted.
Bruno-Vega also recommended that the Legislature appropriate money to help with such projects, including the undergrounding of a feeder on the East End of St. Thomas to be tied to the sub-marine electric cable that runs to St. John. That way, the island can be running quickly in the event of a disaster, Bruno-Vega said.
Since all the rest of WAPA's lines are overhead, Bruno-Vega told senators that the territory would not be able to withstand in terms of electric power a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane. "However, the federal government has realized this, and in the new energy bill passed by recently by the Bush administration, utilities in insular territories that transmit and distribute power are eligible for federal funds in a disaster situation."
Bruno-Vega said that WAPA could probably tap about $1 mill
ion out of about $6 million in available federal funds.
Information was also provided by Edward E. Thomas, CFO and president of the West Indian Co. Ltd. Thomas said he feels fairly comfortable WICO could withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
Present at Thursday's meeting were Sens. Berry, Craig W. Barshinger, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Pedro Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, and Shawn-Michael Malone.
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