A new study identifies key areas where the territory is still struggling to rebound from the 2017 hurricanes and says recovery efforts have “progressed at a slower pace than some other disaster recoveries in the United States and not as quickly as many Virgin Islanders would like.”
Conducted by the nonprofit RAND Corporation, the study was funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and resulted in a 385-page report, “Recovery in the U.S. Virgin Islands: Progress, Challenges, and Options for the Future,” which is available for free online at RAND.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA282-1.html.
Some progress has been made, and FEMA recently awarded $3 million for several additional hurricane repair projects. Those include $890,169 to restore the Farrelly Justice Center on St. Thomas, $384,093 to the Bureau of Corrections to repair the Alva A. Swan Jail Annex and replace the Franklin Building’s contents, $151,928 for the V.I. Fire Service to repair the Emile C. Berry Fire Station on St. Thomas, $107,852 to the Office of the Governor for management costs on St. Croix, and $1.5 million for other projects such as debris removal for the Nature Conservancy and management costs for the St. Croix Landmarks Society.
“But more than three years after the hurricanes, the territory still has substantial recovery needs. The USVI government estimates that, to fully recover from the damage, it will need to execute $11.25 billion in recovery work — nearly three times its annual gross domestic product,” according to the RAND report.
The study’s authors “reviewed the USVI’s prior recovery plans, analyzed available data, considered good practice in other disaster recovery settings, and held more than 170 group discussions with stakeholders,” which resulted in 76 recommendations to improve recovery efforts.
The territory was poorly positioned to deal with the devastation of the hurricanes, and “structural issues have impeded the USVI’s ability to manage, finance, and execute recovery efforts,” according to the report. “If these are not addressed, recovery will likely continue to be significantly delayed. Particular capacity challenges include complex government management staffing and coordination needs; difficulty in navigating the financing of recovery; a shortage of more than 5,000 workers to support recovery; and constraints on supply-chain capacity, especially in acquisition and distribution.”
There are numerous barriers delaying physical infrastructure repairs, including “the sheer amount of damage requiring restoration and long-standing financial, institutional, and technical issues associated with aging infrastructure.”
Those issues are holding back restoration of the tourism economy, education, and healthcare, and the study’s authors highlighted areas that can be improved and recommended officials “focus on improving crosscutting management, fiscal, supply chain, and workforce capacities because these are foundational to recovery in all sectors.”
Government agencies need to hire more staff and “build the recovery workforce by expanding temporary housing for off-island workers and providing additional training for USVI residents,” according to the report. Affordable housing must also be increased “by speeding up repairs on damaged homes, clarifying property ownership, expanding temporary housing, and preventing displacement of residents.”
The territory’s healthcare systems were particularly hard hit, and “the well-being of territory residents, including people struggling with mental health issues and other vulnerable individuals, also suffered,” according to the report. “The USVI experienced a significant drop in the health care workforce because of out-migration, compounding an existing shortage of health care providers and services. The hurricanes also exposed gaps in the territory government’s capacity to monitor mortality and disease morbidity and in the trauma care system.”
The report found that “critical health care services have been restored — in a limited way — while key infrastructure projects, such as hospital construction, are just getting started.”
While rebuilding the tourism sector, education, and healthcare are essential to the territory’s economic survival, “recovery in these areas is heavily dependent on the health and well-being of those who provide and those who receive the services,” according to the report. The territory’s high poverty rate and “lack of appropriate behavioral health care for vulnerable populations in the USVI is well known, and both the prior and current governors have declared behavioral health an emergency. This is compounded by the fact that adults in the USVI are more than 2.5 times more likely to be uninsured than adults living in one of the 50 U.S. states.”
Education and health care were particularly affected, and “some students continue to experience anxiety about storms, depression, emotional vulnerability, behavioral problems, and aggression. Teachers lack consistent support for their own challenges and training in how to help students cope,” according to the report. “The health and human service workforce shortages present before the hurricanes have continued to grow, and there are severe shortages in providing much needed behavioral health care.”
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.