U.S. Virgin Islands Governor: 'Emergency Fast-Track Process' Needed For Federal Aid
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to check on recovery efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were hit by two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, about 18 months ago. For more, we're joined by NPR's Greg Allen, who recently returned from the U.S. territory.
Greg, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Certainly.
MARTIN: Now, you've actually been there a number of times. And you were telling us that, you know, flying into the islands, visitors were seeing lots of blue roofs. Those are houses where the tarps are the only thing keeping the rain out. And the big resorts were closed. But how about now?
ALLEN: Well, you know, recovery is going very slowly there, you know, not unlike the way it is in Puerto Rico. In many ways, for people there in the Virgin Islands, life is still a daily struggle. There's a real high cost of living there in the islands. You know, housing is very expensive. Food's expensive. Supplies that - for rebuilding - they all come from the mainland, so that really raises the cost on things.
Isolation makes, you know, rebuilding very costly and slow. And even getting a contractor is very difficult. You know, and then take - set that aside, you talk about basic services - things like health care and education. The schools are back on full-day sessions now, but things are certainly not back to normal.
MARTIN: Well, tell us more about that. What's happening with the schools?
ALLEN: Well, you know, last year, a lot of the buildings were damaged, and so the students were doubled up in many of the schools. And so they did half-day sessions, which left some students going to school just for four hours a day. And after all of it was done, teachers say the students are academically behind where they should be. Modular classrooms have been brought in, replacing many of the schools.
But other students are just going to school in buildings that are really not in good shape. You know, some of them have real severe damage to him.
I visited the oldest high school in St. Thomas. It's Charlotte Amalie High. Principal Alcede Edwards took me on a tour and showed me some of the damage.
ALCEDE EDWARDS: This particular building, Building B - as you can see, we fenced it off.
EDWARDS: And we lost 30 classrooms, laboratories and everything else.
ALLEN: You know, many other buildings in that school were damaged also. Space is very tight. Cafeteria workers bring lunch out to serve the students who eat in the hallways outside the school, so that's how bad things are.
MARTIN: So what's going to happen? I mean, are the schools, the hospitals and, you know, the houses, for that matter, going to get repaired?
ALLEN: I think eventually. I think that's what you hear from people. Although most of the people I talked to don't expect it to be done anytime soon. They know it's going to take years. I sat down with the new governor in the Virgin Islands, Governor Albert Bryan. He took office in January. He's still getting his hands around all the challenges ahead. He says a large part of the problem there is that the Virgin Islands is an expensive place to live, and as many as a third of the children who live there are below the poverty level.
So there's a real issue of rich and poor there. And for the people who don't have a lot of money, the safety net is really not back yet. I asked the governor about how recovery's going. He recalled something that he heard from one of the aid workers after the storms.
ALBERT BRYAN: Every day, the rich and the middle class, it gets better. And every day, for poor people, it gets worse. And, you know, everybody has forgotten now about the Virgin Islands.
MARTIN: Well, you know, what about that, Greg? I mean, the truth is you don't hear much about the Virgin Islands now. I mean, is FEMA still providing aid, for example, to help people rebuild?
ALLEN: FEMA is still there and still providing aid. Although one FEMA program, the STEP program, that repairs people's roofs and windows - that's expired now. And, as we said at the top, there's a lot of people who still need their roofs repaired. The governor says one of the big problems is that many people lack the property deeds or other documents they need to show FEMA that they own the buildings. That's something that's required. There is more than a billion dollars in housing and urban development funds that are coming in, though, eventually, which are slated to help the territory rebuild. Some of that's for housing, but it'll also be for big projects like schools, hospitals and rebuilding the power grid.
But the problem they see in the Virgin Islands is similar to what I've heard in Puerto Rico and in Florida after hurricanes here. The federal government requires a lot of documentation from local authorities before it releases funds, and that slows down the disbursement of funds, which requires local governments, in many cases, to take out loans. And that can be costly and frustrating for them. I talked to Governor Bryan about this, and he said he's been through big hurricanes in the past, like Hurricane Hugo in 1989. And he says it wasn't always like this.
BRYAN: Accountability has really changed the speed at which recovery happens. So in Hugo, for instance, things happened a lot faster. We really need an emergency fast-track process to federal disbursement of dollars.
ALLEN: Governor Bryan says he's making that argument to officials in Washington. The federal government has been great, he says, but they've only done half the job. Now the challenge is getting the money into the hands of the people in the Virgin Islands who need it, he says.
MARTIN: That is NPR's Greg Allen. Greg, thank you.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
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