US Virgin Islands set to rebuild power grid
When Hurricane Irma hit the US Virgin Islands in September, 2018, not only were thousands of homes destroyed, but 90% of St. Thomas’ power lines and 80% of its transformers were destroyed, thus affecting St. John residents as they are fed by St. Thomas’ power plant. The main issue concerning the power lines is that they were above ground, and when the storm’s 150-mph winds sheared the tops of every tree 10 feet off the ground, the lines went down as well. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the islands, approximately 55,000 customers of The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) were left without service. After the hurricanes, authorities, workers, and residents spent months cleaning up roads, evaluating damage to homes, schools, and hospitals, fighting for insurance claims, and reconnecting people to each other. Now it is time to reassess failures in the power system, consider new resources to rebuild for the long term, and to find the funding to embark on such an industrious project..
FEMA announced on April 2 that it will work with WAPA to rebuild the power grid so that it will be able to withstand winds up to 200 mph. This will include inserting main transmission lines underground, replacing outdated wood poles and instead installing composite poles along major feeder paths and on primary transmission circuits, and strengthening power plants, distribution systems, metering systems, and equipment. The great news is that FEMA can reimburse WAPA through FEMA’s Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation programs for 75% of the costs of reconstruction, therefore not adding too much financial burden onto the already economically challenged territory. Some may be leary of companies participating in the rebuilding effort, especially after the Whitefish debacle in Puerto Rico where a tiny construction company from Montana was awarded a $300 million contract to rebuild the grid without much oversight into the small print of the questionable arrangement. Whitefish was eventually expunged from the deal, but not until after attempting to exploit both hurricane victims and taxpayers in a shady collaboration that was coordinated by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
As for the big picture–although there is some controversy (mostly political) surrounding the existence of global warming, it is glaringly obvious that storms are becoming more violent and destructive. Over the last 30 years, scientists have noted that temperatures around the world have been steadily increasing, and it is scientific fact that hurricanes increase in intensity as water temperatures rise. Climate scientist, Astrid Caldas, notes that “Warm surface waters produce heat and water vapor. Hurricanes feed on and intensify from both, and the amount of rain they ultimately dump can be increased by both the higher availability of water vapor from the warm water and the fact that a warmer atmosphere can hold more of that available moisture.” Caldas also points out that the sea surface temperature where Irma was located appeared to be at least 2.7°F above average, which may explain how the storm became so intense so fast.
Regardless of specific facts related to global warming and its impact on storm intensity, the US Virgin Islands now have the opportunity to rebuild their power infrastructure for the long term. Every year, residents of the islands prepare for a hurricane season, and with the installation of a new power grid and materials that are designed to withstand extremely high winds, hopefully, every looming storm will not present itself as the next potential major disaster.