The Elmore Stoutt High School. The Isabella Morris Primary School. The Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre. The Road Town library. The West End ferry terminal. The National Emergency Operations Centre. The Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex. Court houses. Several community centres.
All these important facilities were badly damaged when Hurricane Irma struck the territory on Sept. 6, 2017.
Four years later, they have not been fully repaired. In some cases, work hasn’t even started.
Other outstanding projects include derelict boat removal, sewerage repairs, and roadwork, to name a few.
Even allowing for the Covid-19 pandemic, this progress is much too slow. As a result, people are suffering.
In the weeks after Irma, the previous government frequently exhorted the Virgin Islands to “build back stronger,” and the current administration adopted the same mantra when it took over in 2019.
The private sector largely achieved that goal: The tourism, financial services and construction sectors led the way as the territory got back on its feet after Irma. The government recovery, however, has been falling further and further behind as the storm’s fourth anniversary approached today.
The main problem appears to be a lack of funding, as we have noted repeatedly on this page in recent years. The United Kingdom has offered a loan guarantee worth about $400 million to help fund efforts overseen by the Recovery and Development Agency, which the House of Assembly established with a 2018 vote. But the current government, like its predecessor, so far has refused to take up the guarantee, complaining that the conditions are too stringent.
This refusal is a mistake. From what we know, the conditions are actually fairly standard and would be expected from any comparable loan guarantee. Besides, as the ongoing Commission of Inquiry has made abundantly clear, the VI government badly needs more stringent rules regulating how it spends the public’s money.
Be that as it may, if VI leaders don’t wish to take the UK loan guarantee, they should have sourced a comparable alternative long ago. But they haven’t. Instead, they have relied largely on a $65 million loan from the Caribbean Development Bank for a recovery that initially was projected to cost more than $700 million.
The results have been predictable: The RDA has been left far too underfunded to operate as envisioned. Its former CEO resigned last year, and many major recovery projects have languished in spite of some progress on smaller-scale efforts.
Leaders have been using Covid-19 as an excuse for the recovery delays. And they do have a point. On the other hand, we would argue that the pandemic’s shock to the territory’s economy makes the hurricane recovery even more urgent.
In recent months, a handful of CDB-loan-funded projects — including overdue roadwork — have provided a badly needed economic boost to help the territory through the pandemic. Imagine how much more economic activity would have come from projects funded by the $400 million loan guarantee or another comparable source.
But instead of redoubling efforts to access such funding, government has poured nearly $60 million from the Social Security Board into a questionable stimulus package that lacked transparency, accountability and efficacy — and left the public furious and calling for answers.
It is high time for a change of direction that will greatly accelerate the public-sector hurricane recovery while weaving it into a comprehensive economic response to Covid-19. This means government must get serious about sourcing funding, prioritising needs, and allowing the RDA to do its work on the scale that was originally intended.
Otherwise, the public can expect continued delays, with essential recovery projects potentially remaining undone a decade or more after Irma.
This vision is extraordinarily depressing, but it is looking more and more likely.