U.S. Virgin Islands governor Kenneth Mapp arrived in Congress Tuesday for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources’ hearing on hurricane efforts in Puerto Rico and the islands (because Hurricanes Irma and Maria impacted the U.S. Virgin Islands, too, remember?)
Mapp started his testimony by giving thanks, noting he knows of “no government on Earth” that responds better to the needs of its citizens in a disaster than the United States of America.
With that, Mapp proposed a simple ask: $7.5 billion. That’s the cost of uninsured hurricane-related damages to the island’s public sector. It’s also how much Mapp has requested in federal disaster assistance. Senators didn’t acknowledge this particular ask, but a couple members of the House wrote in The Washington Post last week they haven’t forgotten about the U.S. Virgin Islands. So maybe Congress will provide the funds. Either way, a delegation from the islands is in D.C. for two weeks to make a case.
The $36.5 billion disaster aid package Congress approved in October includes $800 million in low-interest loans for the islands. So far, they have already received $11.2 million for debris removal, $24 million in grants to help repair transmission lines, and millions more for survivors to repair and rebuild homes.
“Our recovery [for] these islands will take time, and it will begin with a full understanding of the damages caused,” Mapp said during the hearing.
The U.S. Virgin Islands consist of three main islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. They’re still not fairing very well more than two months after Hurricane Irma.
What was most eye-opening in the governor’s testimony was a simple fact: The hurricanes destroyed the islands’ two main hospitals—one on St. Croix and the other on St. Thomas—and affiliated healthcare facilities.
That means patients with critical needs can’t receive aid on the islands. Officials must send someone requiring dialysis, for example, to Atlanta, Texas, or Florida for that service. Puerto Rico used to be a destination, but it’s got its own share of healthcare issues now.
“The recovery funds we’re seeking will help rebuild these two main hospitals on St. Thomas and St. Croix and the healthcare facility on St. John,” Mapp said.
That way, the U.S. citizens who call the islands home don’t have to leave to get treatment.
But power is still an issue, too. St. John islanders plugged in for the first time just last week, Mapp clarified. Electricity remains limited with island connections at only 27 percent capacity. “Can you imagine a community here on the mainland going without power for over six weeks?” Mapp asked.
Then, there’s the random stuff people don’t always think about—fire and police stations, damaged; hot meals, cold; running water, nonexistent. With the loss of key services and, really, normalcy, the economy has also come to a halt on the islands. Key industries, including tourism, are expected to take a more than $1.7 billion hit over the next three years.
Mapp wants to see the islands rebuild more responsibly this time around. As he continued to emphasize throughout the hearing, this is the fifth time the United States is paying to rebuild the Virgin Islands power distribution system after weather damage. Each time, the islands have tried to improve infrastructure, but Mapp is proposing that the government be even more radical this time around.
He wants to see power lines buried under roads. He wants to see more solar and wind done with panels and mills installed carefully and strategically so that they can survive a future disaster. He also plans to install solar panels on top of school roofs to help create sustainable microgrids.
In short, he doesn’t want to see his island rebuild quickly if it means rebuilding inefficiently.
“We cannot squander this opportunity to rebuild a better and stronger and more resilient Virgin Islands to simply rebuild it quickly,” Mapp said. “If we do, we will only compound the suffering that so many of our citizens have endured.”