Work on a new National Emergency Operations Centre in MacNamara continues in the midst of peak hurricane season. The former building was destroyed six years ago by Hurricane Irma, and officials broke ground for the new $9.8 million NEOC in 2021. At the time, they promised to complete the project by August 2022. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

During the eye of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6, 2017, senior government officials in charge of the disaster response were forced to evacuate the very building that was supposed to protect them.

The National Emergency Operations Centre in MacNamara had begun to fall apart during the first half of the storm, and the 25 people inside ran to District Four Representative Mark Vanterpool’s nearby home for safety.

Six years later, a new NEOC is not yet complete — meaning that disaster officials would have to make do without a dedicated facility in the event of another major hurricane this year.

But because the centre is at least under construction, it is much farther along than many other major Irma recovery projects on the public sector’s list.

The past year has seen the completion of the government’s biggest recovery success to date — the approximately $14 million new buildings at Elmore Stoutt High School — as well as $6.5 million in works to improve roads, slopes and coastal defences and $250,000 to repair the Anegada recreation facility.

But many other major projects are stalled for want of funding, and the $46 million in spending overseen by the Recovery and Development Agency as of July — when the entity released its most recent monthly report — is less than seven percent of the $700 million price tag that the government initially put on the recovery process.

Delayed efforts

The effects of the delays are being felt across the territory.

Displaced public officers work in makeshift offices while repairs continue on the Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex.

Students are returning to rundown schools that are battling mould and other issues. Road Town has no public library, and destroyed community centres have not been rebuilt.

Because of delayed sewerage works in East End and Road Town, much of the territory’s waste is still flushed directly into the ocean. Tortola’s trash incinerator has been down for more than a year, and noxious smoke from the nearby landfill routinely wafts over West End.

Courts continue to operate in temporary facilities while the promised Halls of Justice is stalled, and vessels wrecked in Irma still clutter the territory’s waters.

“It was always going to take time to recover because of the scale of devastation that occurred; it was never going to be a quick fix,” Governor John Rankin told the Beacon on Friday. “There is still more to be done. I think we all know that there is still some further work required in terms of that post-hurricane response. At the moment, my immediate focus has been on making sure we are prepared for the current hurricane season.”

Funding woes

Most of the recovery delays appear to come down to a severe funding shortage.

Legislators voted in 2018 to access an approximately $400 million loan guarantee on offer from the United Kingdom and to establish the independent RDA to oversee nearly $600 million worth of major projects over a seven-to-ten-year period.

But they didn’t follow through with their own strategy.

Instead, the previous Andrew Fahie-led administration decided in 2019 to downsize the RDA’s agenda to $187 million in spending over four years.

RDA CEO Anthony McMaster — who did not grant an interview for this article — said last year that the government subsequently refocused its priorities to deal with its financial reality at the time. But the UK loan guarantee is now off the table, and the government has yet to source adequate funding even for the downsized recovery plan.

Looking for loans

In recent months, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley has promised repeatedly to find more money for the effort. And on Tuesday in the House of Assembly, he said that government is seeking to secure loans by the end of the year.

Six years after Hurricane Irma, the Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex is still being repaired. (Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS)

But Dr. Wheatley also acknowledged significant challenges with that process, which he said has been slower than he “would have liked to anticipate.”

“We are at the stage now where we are gathering all the information on the projects and doing costings to be able to submit to the bank,” he said. “We have a general understanding of how much we will borrow, but just ballpark figures at this stage and no concrete numbers.”

He didn’t disclose those ballpark figures on Tuesday, but last September he said government was seeking at least $50 million in new loans by the end of last year.

Planning adjustments?

Meanwhile, government hasn’t announced whether adjustments to the downsized recovery and development plan are needed given the rising costs of supplies and shipping since the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the objective remains at the $187 million price tag outlined in the plan, then only about a quarter of that has been spent by the RDA to date.

The CDB loan

So far, the main source of dedicated recovery funding has been a $65 million Caribbean Development Bank loan secured about three months after the 2017 hurricanes.

But that loan has been difficult to access because of stringent procurement requirements.

The West End ferry terminal, for instance, was recently retendered after all nine firms that responded to the first tender process earlier this year failed to meet prequalification requirements.

As of the June RDA report, only about $21 million of the CDB loan had been tapped for RDA projects.

Other available funding listed for RDA projects included about $33 million from the VI government; about $3 million from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office; and about $1 million from private donors.

All told, $54 million had been allocated for projects overseen by the RDA, and about $46 million of that sum had already been spent on approximately 50 projects ranging in size from $17,000 to about $14 million, according to the agency’s June report.

Biggest project to date

The $14 million ESHS project — by far the RDA’s largest to date — was completed in January despite the ongoing funding challenges. The success brought ESHS students all together on one campus for the first time since Irma.

Government finally completed construction of the new buildings at Elmore Stoutt High School in January. Building the campus was the largest undertaking by the Recovery and Development Agency to date. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Other major RDA projects also got under way in recent months, including the construction of a $4.5 million Jost Van Dyke Primary School and a $3.1 million Joint Marine Shore Base at Road Reef.

Additionally, officials broke ground last month on a nearly $4 million new Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre, and the new tender process for the West End ferry terminal is under way.

As of the June report, other RDA projects were in the planning phase, including an agriculture and fisheries complex; a national cultural centre, archives, library and museum; and a Trellis Bay welcome centre.

RDA changes

When the ESHS buildings opened in January, then-RDA Chairman Ronnie Skelton, who is now the opposition leader, urged the premier to make full use of the RDA on other projects after undertaking a comprehensive review of the territory’s needs.

To that end, the RDA itself may soon see changes.

It was formed in April 2018 for an initial period of five years and would have dissolved in April if Cabinet hadn’t approved an amendment to the RDA Act in December, giving it until the end of 2025 to carry out its work.

VI Development Agency

On Tuesday, Dr. Wheatley confirmed that government plans to transition the RDA from a recovery-focused entity into the more general VI Development Agency.

“The Cabinet paper with the strategic plan to do so has been circulated,” he said. “As we have been doing for the RDA, we will continue to allocate resources to the budgetary process for the Virgin Islands Development Agency.”

It’s unclear whether the new agency will continue to operate under the RDA’s existing framework, and government officials didn’t provide more details during the HOA sitting.

More updates

Also on Tuesday in the HOA, Dr. Wheatley referred opposition questions about national infrastructure development to Communications and Works Minister Kye Rymer.

Among other updates, Mr. Rymer said that the Ralph T. O’Neal Administration Complex — a long-delayed recovery project overseen by the CW Ministry — should be completed by July 2025.

Few details have been shared on the status of the complex in the past year, but while work is ongoing hundreds of public officers have been housed in leased spaces across Tortola.