The staff and inmates within the John A. Bell Adult Correctional Facility must contend with mold until the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections can repair the facility’s roof, the bureau’s Director Wynnie Testamark told the Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure Committee during Wednesday’s hearing.
The bureau has already been awarded $400,000 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remediate the mold but Testamark said it can’t be spent until the roof is fixed. This seemingly simple task has “proven to be quite the challenge” because though the bureau put the roof repairs out for bid twice, Testamark said it has yet to find a qualified contractor at a reasonable cost.
“Both times the bids were either too high or too low based on the specifications in the bid sheets,” Testamark said.
For the third time now, the bureau must work with the Public Works Department to put the roof repairs out for bid, but Testamark said the repairs are no substitution for the scope of work that needs to occur.
“The temporary repairs that the bureau has been making to the John Bell roof to keep the facility operating are neither extensive nor permanent enough to permit comprehensive mold remediation to proceed,” Testamark said. “While we wait for these comprehensive roof repairs, the bureau has been doing as much as possible to reduce and minimize the presence of mold at the facility.”
When pressed by Sen. Marvin Blyden about how the bureau is reducing and minimizing the spread of mold while waiting for the roof repairs to be completed, Testamark said the bureau cleans with bleach every day.
Exacerbating the issue is a dispute between the bureau and the agency over the scope of damage done to the entire facility during the 2017 hurricanes.
“Bureau managers and Witt O’Brien’s have painstakingly identified hurricane-related damage throughout the facility. Yet, FEMA has questioned whether some of that damage either pre-existed the storms or was unrelated to storm damage,” Testamark said. Witt OBrien’s is a consulting and accounting firm that specializes in disaster management.
“We are in ongoing discussions with FEMA concerning these issues, and we have requested a high-level meeting with FEMA leadership to press our case. Both sides agree, however, that the roof at John Bell suffered damage from the hurricanes. And none of the hurricane-related damage to the interior of John Bell can proceed until the roof is fully repaired,” Testamark said.
Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien said the discussions and paperwork have already been completed and the decision now rests with the agency.
The roof and mold have become “priority projects” and Williams-Octalien said that collaborating agencies are on “high alert” to move the roof along as expediently as possible.
“As we can see with many of our recovery projects, we are at the mercy of FEMA,” Blyden said.
“All this mold is a result of waiting and waiting and waiting on FEMA to do what they have to do.”
Sens. Blyden, Janelle Sarauw, Samuel Carrion, Franklin Johnson, Carla Joseph, and Genevieve Whitaker were present for the hearing. Sen. Kurt Vialet was excused. Additional non-committee members were also present.