Like many people in the Virgin Islands, September 6, 2017 is forever etched in my memory. For what seemed like an endless day, Hurricane Irma relentlessly pounded the territory, and residents of the Virgin Islands watched in mute shock as the Category 5 storm shredded rooftops, uprooted trees and shattered lives. Then, exactly two weeks after Hurricane Irma passed through the US Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria made landfall. For hours that stretched into the early morning, rain poured down in torrents on the already battered islands, flooding vulnerable areas and sowing destruction in parts of the islands that had not been shredded by Irma.
The cumulative impact of two Category 5 hurricanes is unfathomable. The people of the Virgin Islands, undeterred by the dramatic scale of the devastation, came together in the face of tragedy and set out to rebuild their lives and their communities. In the weeks and months that followed, they banded together to deliver food and medical supplies, organized clean-up initiatives, and offered private vessels to transport people and goods between the multiple Virgin Islands and Porto Rico. Widespread and extensive damage to homes, businesses, utilities and critical infrastructure required an urgent and large-scale government response.
To advance relief and recovery efforts, I helped numerous congressional delegations investigate hurricane damage, speak with local officials, and equip my colleagues with first-hand knowledge of the local challenges and needs. My office also arranged for local VI officials, businesses, and nonprofits to attend congressional meetings in Washington. In the end, the relentless dialogues and advocacy were crucial to ensuring an extraordinary level of coordination and cooperation between local and federal governments and a meaningful change in Stafford law to not only provide the funding needed for reconstruction, but also to rebuild with resilience. To rebuild not like things were but to rebuild like things should have been.
Despite the huge bipartisan funding, however, the recovery stalled under the Trump administration due, frankly, to that administration’s belief that the funding was “too much” and not the fiscal responsibility of the federal government. Money was “slow to go”. Additionally, with changes to the law made by Congress to allow VI to rebuild to current industry standards, HUD and especially FEMA have had difficulty at the regional and local levels accepting and implementing. changes in standards.
Given this and unnecessary government bureaucracy, I co-authored the Disaster Recovery Acceleration Act (HR 5774), a bipartisan disaster relief bill sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA-6). This key legislation, which passed the House last week, accelerates the allocation of additional assistance to meet unmet needs resulting from a major disaster by establishing a separate funding stream for FEMA. Essentially, the bill will reduce the federal response time to a maximum of 30 days, during which a minimum amount of disaster funding will be disbursed to meet immediate and long-term recovery needs.
Our isolation from the mainland and relatively small size created difficulties in obtaining supplies and workers, and the decision to show up in Puerto Rico added another layer of bureaucracy, further hampering the speed of reconstruction. I must be transparent in acknowledging that unfortunately the local government has exacerbated the slow pace of reconstruction. Unprecedented funding has not been accompanied by sufficient macro-planning. We didn’t use the first years after the storm to build enough capacity – training while paying labor to meet construction and project management demands, developing integrated systems for managing funds and projects, aggressively recruiting experienced Virgin Islanders to return home to advance reconstruction, and educating the public to prepare to spend the massive Congressional funding.
Fortunately, there is a window of opportunity to kick-start this rebuilding as Democrats remain in the majority, our President is prioritizing resilience in underserved areas that are particularly vulnerable to climate change, and our local and federal elected officials maintain transparency and cooperation to advance this once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the Virgin Islands.
As the U.S. Virgin Islands delegate to Congress, I will continue to meet with local and federal officials to assess the level of support needed for the rebuilding process. I am continually encouraged by the courage and heroism shown by the people of the Virgin Islands who have faced the grueling task of rebuilding their lives with tenacity and determination. Together, we have a shared responsibility to safeguard the future of our territory by ensuring that the U.S. Virgin Islands emerges stronger and more resilient from the double tragedy of back-to-back Category 5 storms. is too big and significant to pass up.
Editor’s note: Congresswoman Stacey E. Plaskett represents the U.S. Virgin Islands congressional district in the United States House of Representatives. She is currently in her fourth term in Congress and is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, the Budget Committee and the Agriculture Committee.