Interior Department Provides On-the-Ground Support for Hurricane-Ravaged U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

10/13/2017
Last edited 10/18/2017

Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Areas Doug Domenech and a departmental team today wrapped up a visit to coordinate Interior’s on-the-ground support to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.  Citizens in the islands—including Interior employees—are suffering from hurricane damage, flooding, communication and power outages, blocked roads, and degraded water supplies.

Three white men in polo shirts talk to each other while standing in front of a storm damaged picnic area.
Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Areas Doug Domenech inspects hurricane damage. Photo by Interior.

"The Department of the Interior remains committed to doing everything within our power to help the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico recover from the tragic impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria," said Assistant Secretary Domenech.  "During our visit to the islands, we have been touched by the overwhelming needs of the people.  At the same time, we have been deeply heartened by the dedication and courage of U.S. citizens here and of Interior employees and our federal, territorial, municipal and private partners. I have assured Governor Mapp of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Territorial Senators that Interior is here for the long haul and aspires to go above and beyond the call of duty."

The Interior team visiting the islands this week also included Lisa Branum, Director of the Office of Emergency Management, and Basil Ottley, Director of Insular Policy and a Virgin Islander. The Office of Insular Affairs coordinates federal policy for the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands  as well as administering and overseeing U.S. Compact grant assistance to the freely associated states of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. 

The team’s work this week has included assessments of damage and discussion of the plans for recovery activities in St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John and Puerto Rico, as well as operational meetings with USVI Governor Kenneth Mapp and leaders of FEMA, which coordinates the actions of all federal agencies in response to the hurricanes. The team also conferred with Virgin Islands senators, the Director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency, and officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard.

The ruins of a demolished building stand on a beach.
A destroyed building at Cinnamon Bay, Virgin Islands National Park. Photo by Interior.

 
“We are particularly grateful to the dedicated Interior employees of our national parks and wildlife refuges in the islands as well as our USGS scientists who continue to work, despite being survivors themselves, and to the incident management teams and other emergency responders who have come from other parts of the country to assist them,” said Director Branum, whose Office of Emergency Management (OEM) provides cross-bureau/departmental leadership in emergencies. OEM estimates that more than 550 Interior personnel from various bureaus are responding to hurricane damage and recovery in the USVI and Puerto Rico.
 
The team also met with Virgin Island National Park officials and members of the NPS Eastern Incident Management Team about relief and recovery efforts. The park covers roughly 75 percent of the island, making its recovery a bulk of the recovery effort on St. John.
 
In Puerto Rico, the visiting team met with employees, including Randy Lavasseur, Superintendent of the Caribbean Parks, some of his staff from the San Juan National Historic Site, and the NPS Incident Management Team to discuss ongoing recovery operations across Puerto Rico and the USVI.
 
They also assessed recovery needs with employees at the FWS Iguaca Aviary for Puerto Rican Parrots and met with USGS team members at the Caribbean Florida Water Science Center in San Juan who are doing ongoing stream gage repairs and monitoring the Lago Guajataca Dam.
 
Domenech also met with the director of The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, which partners with the Department of the Interior on natural and historic conservation in Puerto Rico.

Here are just a few highlights of Interior’s support of response and recovery to Hurricanes Maria and Irma in the USVI and Puerto Rico:

The estimated total of more than 550 Interior personnel responding to hurricane damage and recovery in the USVI and Puerto Rico includes more than 170 Interior employees who have supported or continue to support FEMA mission assignments, more than 90 employees deployed on department response and recovery missions, more than 240 Interior employees stationed on the islands who continue their duties as they themselves recover from the devastation, and 66 deployed so far or about-to-be deployed employees out of the hundreds who have volunteered for FEMA “surge mission” assignments. In addition, more than 60 Interior employees have volunteered to be assigned to help the Small Business Administration with damage assessments and support of businesses impacted by hurricanes in the islands. 
 
In conjunction with its Office of Law Enforcement, Interior has deployed four Quick Response Teams (QRTs) on public safety missions to conduct search and rescue duties in the islands. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officers from one of the teams, with help from Agua the dog, rescued a woman trapped under a scooter for over an hour.
 
FEMA has partnered with Interior to use a building on the Christiansted National Historic Site for one of FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Centers. The site is a readily accessible facility or mobile office where survivors may go for information about FEMA programs or other disaster assistance programs, and to ask questions related to their cases.
 
National Park Service: Support teams have been deployed to Saint John to increase removal of debris and vegetation from roads. 
  • The National Park Service’s Arrowhead Hotshots have been brought in to clear trees and debris from the roads with chainsaws in order to allow traffic to flow and provide access for more relief resources. 
  • 34 National Park Service employees on Saint John are making a big difference for the island community as they help clear roads, support FEMA response efforts, and provide spaces for commodity distribution. All three NPS ferry vessels are now up and operational at St. John in Cruz Bay and available for shuttle services and moving supplies. 
  • NPS Motor Vessel (M/V) Fort Jefferson delivered 24 tons of supplies to Interior employees and transported staff, commodities, and equipment between the islands.
  • NPS is coordinating plans to secure museum collections which are located at St. Croix and St. John. 80,000 artifacts on St. Croix and 108,000 artifacts on St. John may be temporarily transferred to ensure ongoing resource protection during recovery. Updates about the hurricane recovery can be found on the NPS Hurricane and Severe Weather Response website.
U.S. Geological Survey:
  • The U.S. Geological Survey has repaired 40 vital water monitoring gages measuring stream flows, lake elevations, water quality, and precipitation. 70 of the 188 total sensors in Puerto Rico were knocked out by the hurricane and nine were totally destroyed. 
  • The USGS, along with personnel from other DOI bureaus, provided critical support to the Lago Guajataca Dam response by setting up cameras to remotely monitor the spillway in real time.
  • USGS continues to provide landslide hazard analysis in Puerto Rico following more than 400 landslides caused by the storms.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
  • Fish and Wildlife Service employees served as an essential communication link for the Mayor of Vieques and provided refuge equipment and staff for road clearing and supply distribution efforts alongside volunteers from the local community.
  • The Fish and Wildlife Service also deployed three fixed wing aircraft and a helicopter to the islands to help support teams in the field and commodity distribution efforts.
Bureau of Indian Affairs and Tribes:
For More Information:
  • In Puerto Rico, the latest information on the status of the response and recovery operation is available at: http://www.status.pr/, or visit FEMA’s website at: FEMA.gov/hurricane-maria.
  • Follow FEMA’s response activities on Facebook at FEMA Puerto Rico and FEMA U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • To register for disaster assistance, call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362), or register for federal assistance online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov. You can also speak with FEMA team members – working throughout communities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands – to register for assistance and ask questions about federal programs. 
  • Tune into local radio stations in Puerto Rico for important public health and safety information being broadcast by federal and Puerto Rico government officials.

A group of people in yellow shirts and safety gear carry chainsaws towards several trees laying across a road.
The Arrowhead Hotshots crew clearing a road on Saint John. Photo by Interior.