US Virgin Islands Legislature acts on hurricane debris management, aid funding
Among several complex issues related to infrastructure damage in the United States Virgin Islands, the question of what to do with massive amounts of debris leftover from the devastation of hurricanes Maria and Irma has become a controversial topic. The accumulation of garbage and approximately 700,000 cubic yards of vegetative debris was a problem that needed to be addressed quickly, as the federal government will only cover the full cost of burning until March 20, 2018. On December 14, Governor Kenneth Mapp informed Senate President Myron Jackson that he had vetoed a bill that would have banned the government from burning debris in the territory, telling officials that only 35 percent of the debris would be incinerated, while another 65 percent of the debris would be mulched and composted. The Senate most likely will not be able to override the bill, as Senators Novelle Francis and Alicia Hansen, who both previously supported a ban on burning debris, no longer take that stance. Francis and Hansen support Mapp’s decision, as long as the location where debris are burned is far enough away from residents in the local area. The clean-up clock is ticking, yet citizen safety needs still need to be considered, regardless of the prospect of the loss of some FEMA funding.
On December 14, Governor Mapp also met with 40 officials on St Croix to assess and determine how effectively government agencies are able to address issues concerning infrastructure and the immediate need for staffing critical government positions. Recognizing that battles for allotted federal funding for both the short term and long term problems would be in the near future, Mapp told fellow officials “we must clearly outline our needs.” The timing of this conversation is crucial, as the US Virgin Islands now stand to collect several billions in aid from the federal government. On December 18, the US House of Representatives introduced an $81 billion disaster aid package that contains funds for Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, as well as states damaged by wildfires. The aid likely would be attached to a government spending bill that must be passed this week to keep the government operating after December 22. The disaster spending is being pushed forward by Republicans from Texas, Florida and California who threatened to oppose the spending bill if hurricane relief wasn’t included.
As part of this bill, the US Virgin Islands will receive $7.5 billion, and Governor Mapp’s office has already released a tentative list of places in need of direct funding. The three areas requiring the most funding are education ($750 million–mostly to replace damaged schools and equipment), transportation ($425 million for infrastructure repairs, airport terminal repairs and tower repairs, as well as port and cruise ship terminal repairs), and private and public housing ($1.8 billion–to provide funding for the Stability Through Engagement Program (STEP), funds for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, and funding to repair or replace Virgin Islands Housing Authority buildings). The bill also provides money for other necessary projects related to improving and rebuilding hospitals, medical centers, and government buildings. These projects are somewhat detailed, but Mapp’s office documents contain another list that contains vague phrases and terms such as “Energy” (allocated $850 million) and “Telecommunications” (allocated $250 million), and this may mean that more transparent, clarified objectives may be necessary to ensure the success of future financial needs. If enacted, this bill would bring total disaster aid this year to $133 billion.