With the FEMA-funded emergency housing repairs program ending on April 15, the Virgin Islands government is grappling with plans for what comes after: another phase of hurricane recovery funded by an entirely different federal agency and the outcome of this week’s negotiations between Gov. Albert Bryan and FEMA executives in Washington.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power Program, locally known as Emergency Home Repairs V.I. or STEP, is slated to end April 15, which means no new housing repair work can be done after the deadline. The STEP Program, part of FEMA’s Public Assistance umbrella and administered by V.I. Housing and Finance Authority, has spent more than $280 million in emergency home repairs funding, with $248 million for construction and $35 million for project management.
Of the $280 million, the territory has drawn down more than $220 million as of Sunday.
According to VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith, STEP has repaired some 7,200 hurricane-damaged homes, initially making emergency repairs only to make homes habitable, and eventually graduating to more permanent repairs. While the inspections and review process continues for homes under the program, and may extend beyond the April 15 deadline, any new work performed after the deadline will not qualify for reimbursement.
In addition to STEP, FEMA’s Public Assistance also funded critical infrastructure, including the 240 modular classrooms and administrative units for the Department of Education, costing roughly $500,000 per modular.
In a Senate hearing, Griffith told lawmakers that when STEP ends, VIHFA will launch the Community Disaster Block Grant-funded Reconstruction and Rehabilitation program. The program, funded under Housing and Urban Development, will prioritize houses that were too damaged during the hurricanes to benefit from the STEP program.
HUD approved the VIHFA’s original CDBG-DR Action Plan for $242 million in July 2018. In March, VIHFA announced another $779 million in CDBG-DR funding “to address unmet long-term recovery needs” due to the 2017 hurricanes. Of that amount, some $90 million is earmarked for housing. Griffith said 70 percent of funds for the CDBG-DR program must benefit low-income and moderate-income households.
This brings the total CDBG-DR funds for the territory to $1.02 billion, but VIHFA is expecting a total award $1.86 billion in four separate allocations.
“These funds will play a significant role in our long-term recovery and revitalization efforts by continuing to give assistance to homeowners still rebuilding in the aftermath of the hurricanes as well as funding on- going major infrastructure restoration and resiliency projects,” Griffith said.
“This latest influx of funding has a broad scope and will do everything from supporting public and affordable housing development, to assisting with new homeowner programs, to fortifying and enhancing our electric grid, seaports and airports,” he said.
The CDBG-DR funds will also address mitigation measures to lessen the damage of future disaster events.
Unlike STEP, the CDBG-DR program reimburses based on approved invoice, not proof of payment. This decreases the payment processing time to contractors, according to Griffith, and may allow the territory to sidestep the payment delays and nonpayment issues currently plaguing STEP. Griffith said this will increase the cash flow, as well as allow for detailed auditing.
According to Griffith, in the next few weeks his office will make contact with residents with severely damaged homes to get them into the new program. EHRVI will also transfer all data it collected to the new program to avoid subjecting residents to more inspections. The agency is working with HUD to begin drawing down CDBG-DR funds this month, according to Griffith.
Meanwhile, Bryan will be in Washington this week to meet with acting FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor to discuss post-STEP options for the territory. It is unclear what is on the table, but in February, Bryan testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, asking lawmakers for a waiver of the local cost-share for FEMA Public Assistance grants.
“We understand the federal government’s concern about states and territories not having ‘skin in the game’ without a local cash contribution,” Bryan told senators at the hearing. “But we have the lives of 110,000 Americans who do not have an option to evacuate in the face of natural disasters. We must rebuild quickly, and can ill afford not to be fully prepared as another hurricane season looms. We have nowhere else to run.”
According to Bryan, the territory has applied with FEMA to participate in a pilot version of Section 1211, a disaster recovery reform provision of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act. The provision, pursuant to Section 408 of the Stafford Act, allows states or territories to administer their own permanent housing construction program for owner-occupied residences.
“Once approved, we will be able to undertake these repair and reconstruction projects more expeditiously and at a far lower cost than would otherwise be possible,” Bryan said.
Ongoing FEMA Programs
Certain FEMA programs currently exist outside of STEP, but does not cover most new applicants.
The Individuals and Households Program, or IHP, under FEMA has provided roughly $86.9 million to Irma and Maria survivors for “necessary expenses and serious needs” that insurance fails to cover. The housing aspect of the program, which comprises $61.4 million of the total amount expended, covers anything from rental expenses for renters to disaster-related damage for homeowners not covered by insurance. Between April 4 and April 8 alone, roughly $30,000 has been paid out directly to survivors, without a mediating agency or cost-share obligations for the local government.
“Other Needs Assistance,” the other part of the Individuals and Households Program, covers anything from medical and dental bills, child care, vehicle replacements up to $15,000, disability-related needs such as walkers and medical beds destroyed by the hurricanes, and even funeral expenses, for which FEMA has paid out roughly $20,000 since the 2017 storms. Unlike the housing assistance, the local government must provide 10 percent of the costs for Other Needs Assistance items, and sets the reimbursement cap for each item.
Aid through IHP, however, was based on registrations at disaster recovery centers in the few months after the storm. FEMA will only consider new requests for assistance on a case-by-case basis under “extenuating circumstances.” Survivors who had to leave the territory and could not go to the disaster recovery centers, persons still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and those who simply fell through the cracks can call 1-800-621-3362 and apply, but FEMA offers no guarantees.
FEMA’s Permanent Housing Construction Program is also still in effect, but the beneficiaries were selected out of data that survivors submitted at the disaster recovery centers and no new applications are accepted. According to FEMA External Affairs Specialist Eric Adams, there are 20 participating homes under the PHC program: 10 have been completed, five of them costing more than $200,000; two homes are ready for occupancy on St. Croix, seven on St. Thomas and one on St. John.
Unlike the STEP program, PHC is administered directly by FEMA.
According to Adams, FEMA will be in the territory for the long-term in various capacities. In addition to processing project worksheets, including multimillion-dollar projects that require a review from the FEMA Office of Legislative Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency is also still supporting recovery operations in the Virgin Islands, Adams said, but it has to operate within various statues, regulations and policies.
“FEMA has pre-staged necessary commodities, including a three-day supply of food and water, across the territory,” Adams stated. “Additionally, generators have been identified and staged in the territory to support critical infrastructure facilities after a severe weather event.”