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USVI Senators refute notion of being inactive after Irma & Maria

January 21st, 2018 | Tags: hurricane Irma USVI Senators defend allegations
A St Croix resident shakes Timothy T. 'Tim' Duncan’s hand during a relief effort put on by Mr Duncan after Hurricane Irma. Photo: Ernice Gilbert, VIC

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, St Thomas, USVI — Gathering at the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St Thomas, US Virgin Islands (USVI) on January 18, 2018, senators who make up the majority caucus, led by leader Neville A. James, forcefully refuted the notion that they were inactive after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a belief held by many residents throughout the territory, who say the lawmakers weren’t visible with their efforts after the storms, if they were active at all.

But the caucus — among them Senators Kurt A. Vialet, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, Myron D. Jackson, Jean A. Forde, Mr James, Novelle E. Francis Jr, Sammuel Sanes, Brian A. Smith, Marvin A. Blyden and the newest majority member Janelle K. Sarauw — at length defended its members’ record relative to their response following the storms, a segment that took up most of the press conference.

Mr James said he was “rejecting the notion that the Legislature was not working on behalf of the people of the territory. For those who desire to continue to perpetuate that fraud, that’s on you,” he said. Mr James was asked by a reporter about the origin of the alleged fraudulent claim, but he instead dodged the question, stating that he did not want to stir contention by pointing fingers.

Residents, throughout the weeks following the storms, were asking for senators to be more visible; it wasn’t a claim made up by political opponents — although it can be used to score points this election cycle. There were several major relief efforts immediately after Hurricane Irma as well as after Hurricane Maria — including efforts by locals and the VI disapora, but the more visible faces of those efforts were everyday residents.

Mrs Rivera-O’Reilly, vice president of the 32nd Legislature, spoke of majority caucus members from her district, giving some details of what she said was their work on behalf of residents following the storms. And she apologised on behalf of the senators for not getting back to official duty as quickly as their St Thomas counterparts, noting the vast damage she said the St Croix offices sustained following Maria.

Mr Jackson, president of the 32nd Legislature, also highlighted what he said were the efforts of senators in the St Thomas-St John District and spoke at length of the body’s work to help the Mapp administration, even as he reminded that the function of responding to storms was that of the executive branch.

The lawmakers said they intend to start querying Mapp administration officials from various departments and agencies about the recovery timeline of their respective areas of function. Senators will also seek the latest recovery-related information from these department and agency heads. The meetings will start on January 24, 2018 with the Committee on Government Affairs, Veterans, Energy, and Environmental, chaired by Mr Sanes. Lawmakers said they weren’t pleased with the length of time it took to restore power to the territory, and they intend to learn why the work was so protracted, as well as what could be done to streamline the process the next time a devastating storm strikes the territory.

Eager to listen

The majority caucus members said they were eager to listen to what the governor has to say during his State of the Territory Address, set for Monday at 7:00 P.M. The lawmakers listed 6 areas that they expect to hear from the territory’s leader on: Education, healthcare, energy, infrastructure, finance and tourism. “Tourism is the goose that lays the golden egg,” Mr James said, adding that the territory is heavily reliant on dollars deriving from the mainstay industry to keep operations afloat.

Mr Blyden, who heads the Committee on Public Works, Waste Management and Planning, said he wasn’t pleased with what he was hearing relative to housing for residents displaced by the storms. The senator spoke of a woman who visited his office today with her eight children. She was employed at a hotel and had received respite from the facility. But her time was up and had no place to live. “To have no emergency housing is a travesty,” Mr Blyden complained.

Mrs Rivera-O’Reilly and Mr Vialet spoke of the importance of restoring healthcare in the territory. Mr Mapp had said that modular units, called the “Western Shelters”, would be installed at both the Juan F. Luis Hospital (J.F.L.) and the Schneider Regional Medical Center (S.R.M.C.) by mid-December, but that has yet to happen. Mrs Rivera-O’Reilly said she was told that FEMA and government officials were moving away from the Western Shelters setup to a more permanent arrangement. According to Mr Vialet, J.F.L. and S.R.M.C. recently received separate drawdowns from the community disaster loan, recently approved by FEMA, of $6.8 million and $3.8 million respectively.

As for their trip to Washington with Mr Mapp to lobby on behalf of the USVI, senators deemed their conversations with the congresspeople as successful. Mr Blyden, for example, said because of the trip, businessmen were visiting the territory with the intention of investing in both districts.”

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