To understand the Virgin Islands’ recovery five years after Hurricane Irma, consider Sopers Hole. The bay — which was devastated by the storm, with yachts turned topsy-turvy and buildings ripped apart — has been transformed: Thanks largely to the efforts of private businesses, freshly painted buildings now line its shore, refurbished docks host shiny yachts, and new boardwalks give tourists a place to stroll.
But the view across the water tells a different story: Government’s temporary ferry terminal is still operating in place of the state-of-the-art new facility that leaders have been promising since Irma.
In many ways, the situation is a microcosm of the territory’s larger recovery effort. As the private sector has roared ahead, the government has fallen further and further behind on its own plans.
To tackle an effort initially projected to cost more than $700 million, legislators voted in 2018 to access an approximately $400 million loan guarantee from the United Kingdom and to establish the independent Recovery and Development Agency to oversee nearly $600 million worth of major projects over a seven-to-ten-year period.
But they didn’t follow their own strategy.
Instead, leaders have refused to access the UK loan guarantee, and the previous Andrew Fahie-led administration decided shortly after taking office in 2019 to downsize the RDA’s agenda to $187 million in spending over four years. But that timeframe will end next year, and as of July the RDA had spent little more than $32 million on mostly minor projects, according to its most recent monthly report.
Meanwhile, the effects of the delays are widespread: Displaced public officers work in offices scattered across the territory; hundreds of students will return to school on a shift system; Road Town has no public library; planned sewage systems in East End and Road Town are largely non-functional; Tortola’s trash incinerator isn’t working; the new National Emergency Operations Centre is not complete; construction has not started at the West End terminal; courts continue to operate in temporary facilities while the promised Halls of Justice is stalled; and many other efforts continue to languish as well.
Despite the long list of outstanding projects, government leaders have repeatedly touted the public-sector recovery as a success, blaming the delays on the Covid-19 pandemic and the Commission of Inquiry.
But not everyone is convinced by such excuses.
For Opposition Leader Julian Fraser, the pace of recovery is “unacceptable.”
“We put our heads together as elected representatives and charted a course for putting the country back to where we were hoping for it to be,” he said of HOA members’ 2018 decisions for the recovery process. “Unfortunately, I cannot say that we have succeeded. Yes, things have been done, but we should have been a whole lot further than where we are now.”
Mr. Fraser blames the government’s failure largely on successive administrations’ refusal to accept the UK loan guarantee as a way to fund recovery projects.
Both Mr. Fahie and his predecessor, Dr. Orlando Smith, complained about conditions that they said the UK had attached to the offer. But Mr. Fraser said they should have moved ahead anyway.
“That’s what developing democracies do all over the world,” he said. “You borrow in order to develop. You can’t wait until you generate revenue to start building.”
Pleased with progress
RDA CEO Anthony McMaster, however, said he’s pleased with the progress of the public-sector recovery, which to date has been powered largely by periodic infusions from a $65 million Caribbean Development Bank recovery loan government secured in 2018.
The RDA, he said, has been using its time wisely despite the shortage of funding needed to tackle the major projects originally envisioned.
“If we did the bigger projects [like the West End terminal and the Halls of Justice] with the requirements of CDB, then chances are our local contractors wouldn’t have been able to participate and we would’ve seen those projects going to overseas contractors,” Mr. McMaster said during an Aug. 21 interview with the Beacon.
Instead, by focusing on smaller “pilot projects,” local contractors have been given the opportunity to build capacity before they step up to bid for a shot at larger recovery projects in the future, he said.
As of the RDA’s most re- cent monthly report issued in June, the agency’s spending of about $32.45 million had funded the completion of 18 projects. Thirteen cost less than $1 million, and five cost under $250,000 (see sidebar below).
The RDA’s largest project to date is the construction of new buildings at the Elmore Stoutt High School. For that project, which broke ground in December and could be finished as early as October, at least $9 million of a projected $15.4 million has been spent so far, Mr. McMaster said.
Other completed projects include repairs to roads, water infrastructure, sister island ad- ministration buildings, and police stations. But Mr. Fraser said this progress is far behind where it should be.
“As you can see, our high school is still not rebuilt and our government offices are still scattered throughout the territory because the complex is not rebuilt,” he said. “The race-track’s grandstand was destroyed, and it still hasn’t been built back. We have a situation where derelict vessels are still in the harbour in Sea Cows Bay.”
Meanwhile, many of the major projects that have been delayed — including the NEOC, the Halls of Justice, the West End terminal and others — are projected to have price tags ranging up to tens of millions of dollars.
Mr. McMaster said he hopes to see such larger projects begin soon now that local contractors have increased capacity to compete against international firms. But he didn’t give any indication of how the projects will be funded other than stating that he believes the government will source the money.
“I suspect the RDA is going to continue getting the funds from where it has been getting them from for the last three, four years, which is the govern- ment of the Virgin Islands,” he said. “In addition to that, there have been opportunities where we’ve obtained grant funding and donor funding.”
Last month, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley announced that the UK loan guarantee was off the table, but he promised that an announcement about different loan funding would come soon.
Mr. McMaster also defended the previous government’s decision in 2020 to downsize the recovery plan retroactive to the previous year.
“I wouldn’t say the plan was downsized,” he added. “What I would say is that the government at the time refocused its priorities to deal with the financial situation of the territory at the time.
“When the original plan was created, it was a full, comprehensive, robust plan that dealt with both rebuilding and future development, but that was all based on loan guarantees and other financial mechanisms.”
Much of that plan, he added, was overly ambitious.
“One of the things that is quite clear is that when the RDA was set up, it was very ambitious to think that the territory of the BVI could actually implement half a billion dollars’ worth of projects and beyond within a five-year period from planning to implementation,” he explained. “I am not afraid to say that that was a pie-in-the-sky ambition for several reasons. If we were going to try to spend half a billion dollars in five years, $450 million would’ve gone straight through the door to external companies, external consultants and foreign firms.”
Mr. McMaster’s predecessor, New Zealander Paul Bayly, may have felt differently: He resigned at the start of 2020, saying his skills were no longer needed following the government’s new plan to downsize the recovery plan.
Now, Mr. McMaster said the RDA is well-equipped to handle large projects, and one day may even take charge of expanding the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport at Beef Island.
“The RDA is a focused agency unlike the ministries,” he said. “It’s very difficult, to be quite frank, for a ministry of government to be responsible for policies and day-to-day operations of the whole public infrastructure and portfolios assigned to them and still effectively plan and implement projects. Whereas the RDA, on the other hand, as a focused implementation agency, we’re able to focus solely on getting the projects done and managing those projects.”
However, the RDA may not be around much longer. The downsized recovery plan expires next year, and the RDA is scheduled to dissolve next June unless the government decides otherwise.
“That’s a policy decision,” Mr. McMaster said. “We have either continuation or winddown procedures already established. The wind-down plan will allow us to smoothly wind down the agency within the time periods of the legislation. As for the policies and regulations of the agency, there’s a transition of the projects back to the respective ministries and agencies.”
Meanwhile, the government is also carrying out recovery projects outside of the RDA, but they have also faced delays. Works on the Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex, for instance, are being spearheaded by the Ministry of Communications and Works.
The building was extensively damaged in 2017 and was boarded up for months to protect office spaces. Since then, contracts costing upwards of $10 million have been signed for various works.
But despite receiving an insurance payout of $11.4 million for the complex, which was among very few public buildings that were insured pre-Irma, government still hasn’t projected a date for completion.
Meanwhile, public officers are still dispersed across the territory in various rented office spaces.
Smaller recovery projects have faced similar funding struggles. The Road Town Fire Station, for instance, finally has renovated barracks for its officers, but more work needs to be done, according to Chief Fire Officer Zebalon McLean.
“Every head of department is experiencing about the same thing right now. The heads of departments all have small budgets,” he said. “We simply don’t have much capital to work with. It’s not like government has a large storehouse of money. It’s not because they’re being willful: It’s simply because they don’t have it.”
The station needs a new appliance bay to house fire trucks and other equipment, because the one in place is structurally unsound, according to the fire chief.
Also needed is perimeter fencing, Mr. McLean said, adding that officers have been attacked and robbed while working their shifts. Fire officers, he noted, work 15-hour night shifts and stay in the downstairs barracks. There are now seven beds in the male quarters compared to the 12 beds that were there before Irma. In the female barracks, there is only one bed as opposed to four.
RDA had spent $32M on projects as of June
Up until its most recent report released in June, the Recovery and Development Agency said it had spent about $32.45 million on recovery projects — barely a sixth of the $187 million in spending included in the government’s downsized recovery plan for 2019-2023. In its report and on its website, the agency listed how much cash funding it has, how much it has promised in contracts, and how much has actually been spent on projects.
Cash funding: $61.02 million
Contracts: $44.43 million
Project expenditure: $32.45 million
Attorney general’s residence: $633,022
Virgin Gorda sports complex: $1,263,182
VG police station: $27,998
Road Town police station phase two: $300,000
Reservoirs and metering: $3,836,103
Anegada admin building and police station: $259,147
Virgin Gorda Baths: $187,978
Special debris clearance: $654,000
Sea markers: $420,208
Bregado Flax Educational Centre junior school improvements: $1,712,998
Elmore Stoutt High School demolition: $136,079
Temporary housing: $336,849
Repair to damaged homes: $193,700
Repairs to the VG admin building: $3,582,130
Jost Van Dyke admin building: $920,004
Road Town police station phase one: $1,000,000
Dismantling old incinerator: $222,841
Redevelopment of Elmore Stoutt High School: $5,623,735
Anegada recreational facilities: $185,486
AO Shirley Recreation Grounds: $1,545,040
Renewable energy installations: $405,277
Waste management solutions: $41,829
Roads, slopes, and coastal defences: $5,179,553
Police marine base: $416,608
VG police station: $21,539
Planning and procurement
JVD Primary School: $150,000
Magistrates’ Court: $187,550
Eslyn Henly Richiez Learning Centre: $107,807
West End ferry terminal: $54,912
VHF network analysis and build: $79,966 Total: $580,235
Removal of derelict boats
Installation of incinerator scrubber
Designs for new incinerator
Sage Mountain restoration: to be carried out by National Parks Trust
Prospect Reef Hotel: cancelled in 2019
Cane Garden Bay dinghy dock repair: to be carried out by the Office of the Premier
Long Bay bathrooms, stalls and shades: temporary facilities constructed
Above/below water clearance: cancelled in 2019 by Natural Resources and Labour Ministry
Debris site fence repairs: cancelled in 2019 by BVI Electricity Corporation
School furniture and equipment: cancelled by Finance Ministry
TA team education strategy: cancelled in 2019
Social registry system development: cancelled in 2019