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Virgin Islands & Puerto Rico

Posted by Secretary Elaine L. Chao

This past month has been extraordinarily challenging for our fellow citizens in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and Puerto Rico, as two extremely powerful hurricanes caused loss of life and extensive damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Impassable road in Puerto Rico

Today I accompanied Vice President Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence to Puerto Rico and St. Croix and surveyed the damage in St. Thomas and St. John by helicopter.  We met with local government officials, civic leaders and residents. Seeing the destruction first-hand is heart wrenching but the spirit of Virgin Islanders and Puerto Ricans is inspiring and soaring.  Americans are helping Americans.  Among the vivid impressions is that the recovery efforts will need to be intensive and sustained, for a lengthy period of time.  As Vice President Pence said repeatedly:  “We will be with you, today, tomorrow and for the long haul to help rebuild…. “

The Virgin Islands were hit by two Category 5 hurricanes in rapid succession.  Irma struck on September 6th, and was particularly damaging to St. Thomas and St John where wind gusts reached 225 mph. The President issued a major disaster declaration on September 7.  FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Defense and other federal assets were deployed.  And then two weeks later, Maria struck.

More than 2,500 federal personnel are currently on the ground in the USVI supporting Governor Kenneth E. Mapp’s recovery efforts.  4.2 million meals and 2.3 million liters of water are being provided to residents.   U.S. Coast Guard has helped reopen all the major seaports in USVI and Puerto Rico.  DOT gave $2.5 million immediately after Governor Mapp’s request.  Delegate Stacy Plaskett accompanied our group on Air Force 2 to the U. S. Virgin Islands, and before we landed gave us a briefing on the current state of the island.  Acting HHS Secretary Don Wright, Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams and FEMA Regional Administrator John Rabin were also on the trip.

We received a briefing at the Army hanger and visited the Holy Cross Episcopal Church where two portions of the roof of this beautiful 100-year old Church had caved in (see photos).  The strong spirit of the parishioners was so moving.  Then, we participated in an aerial survey of the other two islands, St. Thomas and St. John.  I know both islands well as I have been there before.  It was very distressing to see the destruction.  On an unintentionally amusing note, I have been on helicopter surveys before with the doors open.  I have never sat next to the open door facing the pilot – I now know why.  (…The force of the wind is like being in a wind tunnel.  My face was numb for hours afterwards.  So, if you are ever in a helicopter, sit in the interior 2 seats of the 4 seat bench in the helicopter.)

Puerto Rico was devastated as well. Responding to Governor Ricardo Rossello’s request, the Department had released  $42.5 million in Emergency Relief Funds to help rebuild roads and bridges and another $8.4 million will go toward transit systems, including ferries and buses.  The Department established an “air bridge” between the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico, using FAA aircraft to transport critical supplies and personnel.  FAA swiftly restored airspace capacity to pre-storm levels.  Federal assistance including personnel, supplies and equipment are being provided to support recovery efforts.  More than 8 million meals and 8 million liters of water have been provided.  But, much remains to be done.

While traveling down to Puerto Rico on Air Force 2, Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez showed me photos of impassable roads in the interior of Puerto Rico to which we could not go. See all of the photo. 

Upon landing in Puerto Rico, Vice President Pence, Second Lady Karen Pence, others and I participated in a faith event and community greeting at Iglesia Santa Bernadita Church, which is open 24/7.  The prayers — especially from Second Lady Karen Pence — and the hymns sung were sustenance for the soul.  On the way to the Convention Center in San Juan to receive a briefing at the FEMA Interim Operations Center, we passed a group of people whose community center was severely damaged.  So the Vice President stopped and took time to speak with them.  At the Operations Center, we received a briefing on the extensive relief efforts.  In addition, Second Lady Karen Pence joined the First Lady of Puerto Rico Beatriz Rosello in working with some young children on art therapy using tens of pounds of clay that she bought herself and brought to Puerto Rico.  We closed out the day at the Convention Center and The Vice President thanked everyone for their great work.   I was able to meet with some of our DOT colleagues, who are there working hard for the people of Puerto Rico.

I am so proud of the dedication and hard work of USDOT employees who have been helping the recovery efforts in USVI, Puerto Rico and the mainland where Harvey and Irma also caused much devastation.  Over 230 USDOT employees have volunteered for the Call to Serve program!  The DOT crisis center has been staffed 24/7 since before Harvey came ashore in Texas.

So please join me in continuing to keep those impacted by these disasters -- as well as all those helping with the recovery efforts -- in your thoughts and prayers, as we work hard for the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.