When hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) in 2017, they caused billions of dollars in damage. As of June 30, 2019, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had obligated more than $1.9 billion in grant funding for 640 projects in USVI through the Public Assistance program and Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says the limited availability of local USVI personnel to staff key recovery positions and the territory’s difficult fiscal situation presented challenges in implementing these programs.
Further, FEMA and USVI officials told the GAO review that they faced challenges with implementing the Public Assistance alternative procedures program, which provides USVI with flexibility in determining when and how to fund projects. Specifically, these officials stated that developing accurate fixed-cost estimates and using new flexibilities authorized by law delayed longer-term recovery projects. USVI officials told GAO they plan to take a cautious approach when deciding whether to pursue projects using the alternative procedures.
FEMA expanded its Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) pilot program in the USVI to address the lack of other sheltering options for survivors, such as hotels. The program aimed to provide minimal, temporary repairs to damaged homes to quickly make them habitable. In May 2019, FEMA decided it would not use the STEP pilot program in the future since it did not provide assistance as rapidly as intended. Historically, the program was used to address survivors’ emergency sheltering needs. However, since ending it, FEMA has not evaluated options for providing future emergency sheltering assistance. GAO says doing so could help FEMA plan for when the next disaster inevitably strikes.
The GAO review found that USVI and FEMA established structures for overseeing recovery efforts. For example, the USVI established a new office to oversee federal recovery programs and FEMA has processes in place to oversee recovery projects at the local, regional, and headquarters levels. However, GAO also found that FEMA does not have a consolidated standard operating procedures document for monitoring Hazard Mitigation Grant Program projects.
The report makes two recommendations – to evaluate options for providing emergency sheltering and assess the need for a consolidated standard operating procedures document for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program – with which the Department of Homeland Security has concurred.