Recovery, Readiness Still 'Continuous Situation', Says Top FEMA Official
Mar. 25--ST. CROIX -- While the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a larger, permanent footprint in the Virgin Islands since hurricanes Irma and Maria, readiness for the upcoming hurricane season remains a work in progress and by no means a certainty.
So says Jacqueline Heyliger, the first Virgin Islands recovery director of FEMA's Caribbean Division, a role specifically created to manage and coordinate FEMA activities from within the territory, as opposed to Puerto Rico or the mainland.
Heyliger, who officially assumed her duties in the fall, said preparedness for the start of hurricane season on June 1 remains a "continuous situation," and that FEMA is working closely with the V.I. government to ensure funding and technical support are provided where needed.
"We're here to support -- that's our primary function," Heyliger said. "Right now, we're working with headquarters and the regional office to ensure that we have things pre-positioned. As of now, we have food and water within the territory pre-positioned for at least three to four days."
Indeed, the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency came under fire after an apparent miscommunication with FEMA led to the agency not knowing where to stage food and supplies prior to Hurricane Irma.
Heyliger said she couldn't comment on the situation, insisting that she "wasn't there" and "can't say they didn't do anything wrong."
"What I can say is I would not have wanted to be in that position, with two storms, one behind the other," she said. "I think it would have been difficult for any person to manage."
Heyliger, who oversees more than 300 personnel in the territory -- on all three islands -- said she stresses to all the importance of a good working relationship between FEMA and VITEMA, and the V.I. government at large.
Any talk of "bad blood" between the two and the notion that this may be impacting the recovery is unbeknownst to her.
"As far as I know, the relationship is great," Heyliger said. "I know that the territory is operating to the best of their ability."
At Heyliger's main office in Sunny Isle, St. Croix, a cluster of calendars, timelines and maps can be seen strewn on the walls of a makeshift conference room, each indicating in its own way the bevy of phases involved in reviving the territory.
For Heyliger, a major objective is to transition FEMA's role from one of just "response" to actually supporting efforts that ensure the Virgin Islands can be a more stable, sustainable and resilient community.
Making sure hospitals and medical facilities are fully restored, for example, is one of her top priorities.
"One of the challenges is medical facilities, but we are making headway," she said. "We have modular units provided at Charles Harwood [on St. Croix], we have modular units at Luis Hospital [on St. Croix] and we have modular units at Myrah Keating on St. John. So, I do know progress is being made and that's with collaborative work with the territory, our other federal partners and FEMA."
The medical enhancements are being funded by FEMA Public Assistance grants.
Heyliger also addressed FEMA's Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power program, or STEP, which is locally known as the Emergency Home Repair V.I. program.
While many workers and subcontractors involved in the program have blamed FEMA for the rash of untimely and often nonexistent paychecks, Heyliger said it lies more with the territorial agencies managing the program and not FEMA, which simply obligates the funding.
"I believe we have over $220 million already obligated to the STEP program -- we are not holding any funds back," she said. "It's on the territory and the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, they are the ones that are responsible for ensuring this program functions as it should."
Heyliger said FEMA has extended the program several times, with the latest extension going through April 15.
"Whatever we need to do, we will," she said.
Heyliger, a native Virgin Islander, is no stranger to disaster recovery.
While previously serving as FEMA chief of staff, she worked throughout the nation, involved in hurricanes Harvey and Houston, as well as the floods in Nevada and South Carolina and a cyclone in American Samoa.
In 1995, Heyliger joined the American Red Cross to help coordinate services for disaster survivors in Hurricane Marylin.
In 1998, Heyliger joined VITEMA and held various positions including assistant director, deputy director of operations, mitigation director and preparedness coordinator.
Heyliger said disaster recovery in the Virgin Islands is unique because of the territory's geography, a reality that makes the transport of commodities a hassle.
"The way we're situated in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean creates many hardships for people of the territory," she said. "I've worked on many disasters in the mainland and there you can truck commodities, you can move resources. The territory is in a unique situation here. So, if there is anything I could change, I would like to work on how quickly we can get commodities to the territory because where we are geographically makes that very difficult for us."
According to FEMA, more than $2 billion in federal disaster assistance has been approved to date.
--$85.9 million in Individual Assistance grants to homeowners and renters.
--$1.68 billion in FEMA Public Assistance grants to the territory.
--$538.7 million in U.S. Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loans to homeowners, renters and businesses of all sizes.
--$20.2 million in National Flood Insurance Program claims payments to policyholders. Average payment is more than $91,000.
--$23.2 million in Hazard Mitigation grants.
-- Contact A.J. Rao at 340-714-9104 or email email@example.com. ___
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