Response and Recovery - Should the territory be impacted by a natural disaster, formal procedures are in place, which outline the protocols for a disaster declaration. In the wake of a major disaster, the territory’s governor is authorized to declare a state of emergency (for up to 30 days after the initial impact). At this point, officials working at the federal and local level will conduct as assessment of damage throughout the islands and will then submit all findings to FEMA (Kossler, 2009). FEMA will then provide this information to the president’s office for decision
According to Idamis De Jesus (Assistance Program Specialist with FEMA), the President of the United States may declare the territory as a disaster area, which initiates the action of federal assistance (Kossler, 2009). The territory may apply for federal aid once a major disaster declaration is made by the President and the need for financial assistance can be demonstrated (Bea et. al, 2004). As noted by Bea et. al (2004, p. 3), “The declaration activates the disaster plan and response and recovery activities, and authorizes the deployment and use of any forces, supplies, equipment, and facilities (Virgin Islands Code, Title 23, Chapter 12, §1125(c)).” FEMA will begin to provide funding resources and assistance (Kossler, 2009).
Two tiers of disaster declaration exist (depending on the extent of damage encountered by the territory) as aid may be administered to only government agencies for community repair or to individuals homeowners and small businesses (Kossler, 2009). Bea et. al, 2004, p. 4) states:
When financial assistance is essential to meet the needs of individuals or families after the President issues a major disaster declaration, the governor is authorized to accept a grant by the federal government or to enter into an agreement with the federal government to participate in funding. All federal grants and local matching funds are to be deposited in the general disaster relief fund (Virgin Islands Code, Title 23, Chapter 12, §1135). The “general disaster relief fund” within the treasury is used to meet necessary expenses or serious needs of individuals or families that cannot otherwise be met from other means. Grants of assistance cannot exceed $5,000 per family per incident. The fund consists of appropriations by the legislature and the proceeds of federal grants (Virgin Islands Code, Title 33, Chapter 111, §3041).
When this assistance it no longer needed, the governor’s emergency declaration can only be terminated by a federal executive order (Bea et. al, 2004).
Discussion of Challenges, Opportunities and Overall Lessons
As can be seen, one of the greatest challenges of the U.S. Virgin islands is its geographic isolation. The geographic location makes it susceptible to a bevy of natural disasters. Unfortunately, this particular problem cannot be rectified. Making matters worse, the booming tourism industry means that citizens as well as visitors will be exposed to these types of natural disasters. With projected population increases, it is essential that the territory’s government take a proactive stance towards emergency management.
Despite this challenge facing the small-island territory, the U.S. Virgin Islands can lay claim to having made great strides with regards to its emergency management initiatives. By undertaking such projects as the underground burial of electrical power lines, slated installation of a tsunami warning system, and assessment of the structural integrity of critical facilities among others, the U.S. Virgin Islands has clearly demonstrated a commitment and forward-thinking approach to emergency management. And though the hazards faced and challenges posed may always be present, continued commitment and dedication on the part of the government will ensure that emergency management initiatives move in a progressive manner.
A second challenge faced by VITEMA as a result of the territory’s geographic isolation is the limited resources that the territory has continually had to work with.26 As noted earlier, funds and other resources are at a premium. Because this is the inherent context of the U.S. Virgin Islands, VITEMA has needed to master the ability to make use of limited resources and to be more efficient by consolidating resources to as to have them work in a targeted manner.27 In prior years, the 911 system, Public Assistance Program, and Office of Homeland Security operated individually, which resulted in competition amongst each other for limited funds and resources.28 Consolidating all these departments under the jurisdiction of VITEMA ensured that inter-agency competition was substantially reduced if not eradicated.29
Another overall lesson that can be taken away from the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Mark Walters, is the strong sense of community for residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands.30 This is a small island territory where in more instances than not, people all know each other.31 This statement also extends to key government personnel and their ties to the community. For this reason, emergency management has become a personal endeavor that has engendered a sense of commitment on the part of government.32 VITEMA has consequently sought to engage the community and be accessible to citizens.33 Continuous communication of the territory’s emergency management outlook intends to get citizens to “buy into the vision” of VITEMA.34 The restructuring of VITEMA along with the public outreach program and numerous projects undertaken provide additional evidence of the territory’s goals at strengthening emergency management.
This chapter provided insight into the evolution of emergency management in the U.S. Virgin Islands by highlighting key hazards, major vulnerabilities, and historical disaster events. The chapter also provided an overview of emergency management in this territory, and the mitigation activities which have strengthened the infrastructure of this small-island territory. Some of the key accomplishments of the territory’s emergency management program were also mentioned. This included consolidating the key departments that are tasked with the emergency management and elevating VITEMA to a cabinet-level agency. Additionally, territory-wide building codes were also implemented as well as projects to reduce the damage and downtime to the electrical grid system in the aftermath of a disaster.
While the territory should be lauded for the mitigation steps which have been undertaken, the fact remains that there is an inherent exposure to natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Combined with vulnerabilities such as being a geographically isolated territory and having limited resources, it becomes evident that the territory must maintain an ongoing vision toward means of strengthening emergency management protocols.
Although the Virgin Islands will undoubtedly have the backing of the United States federal government should disaster supersede their response capacities, this assurance has not resulted in a lackluster effort with regards to the territory’s disaster mitigation and planning. By continually planning and implementing effective mitigation strategies, the Virgin Islands will serve as the standard for other Caribbean islands to follow. The territory can become a beacon to other small-island nations as to what can be accomplished when dedication, commitment, and follow-through on emergency management initiatives take place.
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1 Carlos Samuel is a PhD student in the Department of Public Administration at the University of North Texas.
2 David A. McEntire is an Associate Professor in the Emergency Administration and Planning Program in the Department of Public Administration at the University of North Texas.
3 Mark Walters (Former Director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency, Interview 1/28/2011