If Tropical Storm Elsa had decided to head north instead of south across the island chain and into the Caribbean Sea last weekend, would the Virgin Islands have been ready to face it head-on? ?
A check with various agencies last week suggests the answer is: roughly.
Gone are the days when hurricane preparations began once bad weather loomed and consisted of packing a few extra gallons of clean water, cans and stacks of flashlights, hanging up some plywood and hoping. the best.
Today’s hurricane preparedness begins long before the official opening of the Atlantic hurricane season in June and spans a wide range of concerns, from basic infrastructure to provisions for special protections for people. most vulnerable residents.
The work is not yet done on all fronts, and some officials can count on a bit of leeway as, with a few notable exceptions, the season usually does not prepare for the Virgin Islands until late August. But in many areas, the territory seems well prepared.
“Here we are,” said Steve De Blasio, speaking on his cell phone Thursday as he took the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John to deliver a generator for a storm shelter. As Deputy Director of Logistics at the VI Emergency Management Agency, De Blasio is a key player in coordinating efforts between local government agencies, some non-profit organizations and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We have learned a lot of lessons” from previous storms, he said.
De Blasio, and others interviewed for this report, noted the collaborative nature of preparedness efforts, but, he said, “at the end of the day, it’s up to social services” to manage much of the burden. job.
Social Services Commissioner Kimberly Causey-Gomez told The Source her ministry had approved six locations to serve as primary evacuation shelters during the 2021 storm season:
Sainte-Croix – Sainte-Croix Educational Complex and DC Canegata Recreation Center
St. Thomas – Bertha C. Boschulte College and Addelita Cancryn School
St. John – Adrian Sr. Center
Water Island – Firehouse Community Country House
VITEMA, supported by funding from FEMA, is equipping the shelters, De Blasio said.
This includes repairing or replacing existing generators as needed, supplying them with fuel and, when a storm is imminent, supplying shelters with food and water. In these days of Covid-19, that also means providing shelters with personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer, he said.
“We’re going to make sure people are safe,” he said.
The agency will also provide food, water and other disaster supplies to distribute to residents after a major storm. The items are already in storage on the island, and there is a well-stocked FEMA warehouse of items in Puerto Rico intended to serve both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, he said.
The plan is to open two distribution points, or “PODs” on each of the larger islands, Sainte-Croix and Saint-Thomas, and one or two on Saint-Jean as well as one on Water Island. VITEMA has already identified more than a dozen potential PODs on the two largest islands in case one or more of them is severely damaged in a storm and becomes unusable.
De Blasio said the agency will announce the location of operating PODs once a storm has passed and there is a federal declaration of disaster. It also provides for the establishment of “special-purpose PODs” in certain housing communities, bringing goods directly to residents.
VITEMA also has six “light towers” – two each in Saint-Thomas, Saint-Jean and Sainte-Croix – which it will deploy after a storm, he said. Each tower is equipped with its own generator and rests on wheels so that it can be carried anywhere where a light source is lacking.
“They were so valuable after Irma-Maria,” said De Blasio, referring to the back-to-back Category Five hurricanes of September 2017. “We’ve already put fuel in them,” and contracted local suppliers to keep them powered. . If a contractor suffers damage during the storm and is unable to provide fuel, “we have the federal government backing up.”
While hurricane preparedness emphasizes planning for both anticipated and unforeseen situations in the service of public works, a lot of mitigation work has also been carried out in recent weeks.
Since April, the department has been methodically cleaning the bowels of the territory to prevent them from clogging and overflowing during heavy rains, then undermining the roads and damaging private property nearby.
“It’s a global effort,” said Public Works Commissioner Derek Gabriel, adding that the project is about 95 percent complete. He called on the public to stop using guts for garbage removal, saying teams have found everything from old tires and patio furniture to kitchen appliances in some guts.
In the event of a storm, “our main function as an emergency service is to clear the roads,” said Gabriel.
To that end, the department divided each island into sectors and assigned staff in each sector to clean the main and secondary roads from storm debris, he said. The necessary equipment will also be housed at various sites across the islands or returned home with staff as a storm approaches, to be ready once the storm has passed. Private contractors will increase staff after a disaster declaration.
Public Works is also a leading organization in distributing sandbags to the public, to be used to shore up homes against potential flooding.
Gabriel said the department has 3,000 pre-filled sandbags in Sainte-Croix, 5,000 in Saint-Thomas and 1,000 for Saint-Jean to distribute to residents in an emergency. It also plans to make sandbags available in July as part of its “Blue Skies” disaster preparedness program.
One of the “lessons learned” from the chaos that followed the 2017 hurricanes was that many elderly and disabled residents were left to fend for themselves.
In 2018, the legislature passed a law creating the DHS Disaster Registry Flyer, and mandating social services to maintain it. The law doesn’t specify exactly what assistance will be provided, but in an email response to The Source last week, Causey-Gomez expanded on his goal.
“The aim of the registry is to ensure that we are able to locate people registered after an event catastrophic for their health and safety,” she said. “If there is a natural or man-made event, a well-being assessment will be carried out. In the event of a serious disaster, rescue missions can be carried out from the address details. Treatment packs can also be delivered.
She said the information in the registry can also be used to update registrants with disaster information via SMS, email and phone messages.
About 660 people have signed up to date, according to Causey-Gomez. Forms are available at the VI Elections System, Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and DHS facilities (Knud Hansen Complex in St. Thomas; Richmond Senior Center in St. Croix; Multipurpose Center in Cruz Bay, St. John) as well as on the ministry’s website, www.dhs.gov.vi.
In addition to maintaining the registry and identifying emergency shelters, Causey-Gomez listed a myriad of disaster responsibilities for social services “including shelter, food operations, emergency first aid. , bulk distribution of emergency items, and collection and provision of victim information to family members. “
It also includes connecting the community with disaster assistance and recovery programs, such as access to food stamps, crisis counseling, disaster unemployment, legal services. disaster relief, support and services for populations with special needs and other federal and territorial benefits.
Hurricane preparedness also involves special training in some ministries and agencies as well as regular intra-agency meetings. DHS hosted a mandatory one-day department-wide prep session on June 29, for example, and from July 12 to 19, VITEMA will be hosting two-day pod management training sessions on each island. .
FEMA holds monthly meetings with local officials and the Emergency Management Board to plan and coordinate disaster response.
But the government cannot do it all.
Several officials stressed that people must prepare themselves for disasters.
De Blasio said emergency food and water supplies are based on what was needed in previous disasters. There should be enough food and water for hundreds of residents on Water Island, up to 3,000 in St. John, and 15,000 to 20,000 each in St. Thomas and St. Croix, for five days.
But what happens after that? And what if more people are in need after the next storm? And what happens in the (unlikely) event that all stored supplies are lost in the storm?
The first and last line of defense against disasters is individual preparedness.
“I encourage everyone to make their own checklist,” said Gabriel. This is something he and his wife did a few weeks ago, inspecting their shutters, checking that the generator was powered and working, stocking up on food, water and medicine, planning what their children might. need.
“(People) have to be ready and have to be self-reliant” for a rule of thumb five days after a storm, De Blasio said.
Erik Ackerson, VITEMA’s public information officer, urged residents and visitors to stay informed of impending situations by signing up for the Alert VI alert system, by visiting the agency’s website at address www.vitema.vi.gov.
(Editor’s note: Several ministries / agencies contacted for information on their preparedness activities did not respond in time. If the Source receives additional information, it will include it in a future article.)