By Joy Blackburn
The Virgin Islands Daily News
ST CROIX, USVI (MCT) — President Barack Obama on Wednesday declared another major disaster in the US Virgin Islands — the third presidential disaster declaration for the USVI in two months — in connection with the severe storms, flooding, rock slides and mud slides that hit the territory November 8 through 12.
The declaration triggers the release of federal aid, which will be used to supplement the territory’s recovery efforts.
According to a prepared statement from the White House, federal funding will be available to the local government and certain private nonprofits on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged during the November storms on St. Croix. That funding comes through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Grant Program.
Wednesday’s disaster declaration also makes federal funding available for hazard-mitigation projects throughout the entire territory.
The torrential rainfall associated with Tropical Storm Tomas hit St. Croix particularly hard, peaking on Nov. 10, when flash floods rushed across the island, stranding motorists, damaging roadways, buildings and vehicles and killing a woman who was swept away in floodwaters in La Grange.
V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director Mark Walters said that Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s request for individual assistance — which would trigger federal funding to help individuals and families who had damages during the storms and flooding from Nov. 8 through 12 — still is under review.
Receiving three presidential disaster declarations in a single year is unprecedented in the Virgin Islands.
On Sept. 28, Obama declared a disaster after Hurricane Earl’s brush by the Virgin Islands in late August. A little more than a month after Earl, Hurricane Otto formed to the north of the territory, pulling moisture up from the southwest from Oct. 4 to Oct. 8, causing mud slides and widespread flooding. On Nov. 5, Obama declared that flooding a disaster.
Obama moved rapidly to declare the most recent flooding a disaster.
DeJongh submitted the request for the disaster declaration over the weekend.
"It’s been really a hectic year in terms of the weather," Walters said Wednesday, noting that having a second disaster declaration within two months had already set a record — and that was before Tomas.
Getting the declaration is not automatic, he said.
"The third time around, people take it for granted that it’s an automatic process. It’s more than asking for it. We actually had to do a very comprehensive survey and not only gather the information, but do a narrative" describing the damages and the local government’s response, Walters said. "It’s a reflection on the government and the administration that we were able to do a quality survey, and put together a quality package outlining the need for another disaster declaration."
The next step in the process is an applicants briefing, which will be announced soon, during which agencies that incurred costs or damages to facilities and infrastructure will receive information about applying for assistance.
Completed applications go through VITEMA to FEMA. Once the federal agency determines eligibility, it releases funds, which VITEMA draws down and then passes on to the agency, Walters said. The reimbursement will be available for damages and costs not covered by insurance or other resources, with the federal government reimbursing 75 percent of the cost, he said.
Of the three disasters this year, this is the only one in which a request was made for federal funding for individual assistance, Walters said.
"One of the main criteria for a declaration for individual assistance is based on the number of people who had major damage to their homes that displaced them from their homes," he said. "There has to be impact on the habitability of their homes."
He said that the two other disasters did not meet the threshold for that request but that St. Croix saw more of that kind of damage during this month’s flooding.
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