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    Friday, August 23, 2019-5:36:31P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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FEMA’s work in NMI moving forward, says official

THE Federal Emergency Management Agency’s work in the CNMI is moving forward despite the partial U.S. government shutdown, according to Robert Fenton Jr., FEMA Region IX administrator.

He said FEMA is likely to complete debris removal, temporary roofing, and power restoration by the end of February,

Temporary schools with functioning air-conditioning units will be ready for students at the end of this month, but permanent house construction will take well over a year, he added.

Fenton has been on Saipan for the last week to oversee FEMA’s progress, and to participate in the inauguration activities for the CNMI’s elected officials.

“I’ve probably spent about a year of my life on Guam or in the CNMI over the last 22 years of my career,” he said. As of now, his efforts are split between Yutu relief and aiding in the aftermath of the Camp Wildfire in California, including the devastating destruction of the town of Paradise. 

Despite the partial U.S. government shutdown, he said the “majority of the staff working out here are getting paid underneath the disaster relief fund…[which] is not impacted by the shutdown right now. I do have staff that are paid underneath the account that shut down, but they’re out here working and they care about the mission…so they’ll stay on here and continue to work.”

With debris removal coming to a close, one of FEMA’s current focuses is reducing impact on the landfills by installing air burners for green and wood debris and preparing to sell metal debris for recycling purposes. CNMI residents can assist FEMA by sorting their own debris by material, then leaving it out in an easily accessible place for crews to pick up.

As far as home repairs, 20 military crews have installed over 230 temporary roofs on Saipan and 240 on Tinian — they’re due to finish their assignment by the first week of February.

“But that’s not the end of what we’re doing to help individuals with houses,” Fenton assured. “Not only are we providing grants to people to help them hire labor to fix their roofs or other parts of their houses that were damaged during the storm, but also we’re looking at potential programs where we can do some kind of permanent construction to help repair and rebuild their houses.”

As a general rule, FEMA builds houses and public infrastructure to the 2018 International Building Code. However, Fenton recommended that the CNMI follow Guam in using the 2000 IBC as a “starting point,” then bringing together engineers, architects, and local officials to revise the code where necessary to ensure that it fits the CNMI’s unique situation.

For now, FEMA is offering to rebuild houses through its Permanent Housing Construction Program for homeowners without insurance whose main residences sustained major damage. Only U.S. citizens are eligible.

“We’ve seen that there’s about 500 people that fall into these categories,” Fenton said. “We are reaching out to them one by one to understand their interest.”

If all goes according to plan, FEMA can supply the materials and labor required to rebuild those homes to be stronger and more typhoon-resistant than ever. They can also simply provide homeowners with cash based on the damage sustained, but Fenton hopes CNMI residents will opt into the full program.

“Rather than us give you the [money], let us repair or rebuild your house for you,” Fenton said. “We will make sure we build it to the most up-to-date code. We will make sure we harden it. We will make sure that we take care of bringing a contractor on board.”

As an example, he brought up a local home that sustained $12,000 worth of damage.

“Sometimes $12,000 right now in your hand looks pretty good,” he acknowledged. “But when the actual cost is going to be much more than that to actually fully get it back to what it was like before [without FEMA’s direct assistance], it may be more beneficial to go with our program where we actually not only repair it, but strengthen it.”

Because those who do opt into the cash payments will be expected to keep their receipts in the event of an audit, Fenton recommended that recipients “follow the agreements that they have set up with us and use the money appropriately.”

FEMA has already offered around $21 million in disaster loans to homeowners and renters  to assist with repairs and rental payments. Rental assistance is offered on a monthly basis and renters are required to show receipts of having paid their rent the month before in order to receive money for the next month’s rent.

FEMA plans to present this information and more in townhall meetings so that local residents can better understand their options.

FEMA is also actively building resilience into the CNMI’s damaged infrastructure using mitigation funds. They plan to replace 2000 wooden poles with concrete poles and bring some power systems — particularly those surrounding the airport — underground, where they’re less likely to be disrupted by storms.

But hardening the CNMI’s infrastructure involves a struggle against what Fenton calls a “tyranny of distance” that forces progress to come only as quickly as supplies can be shipped overseas.

“We can’t use planes to do everything,” he explained. “We have to use ships for the concrete poles. All that takes time.”

He said that other complications include ensuring that repairs are compliant with environmental code and finding ways to bring a large enough workforce on island to carry out the repairs.

Still, he says that it’s well worth the challenge because once the CNMI’s infrastructure and residences are rebuilt stronger, “it becomes much easier to respond to [disasters] because emergency supplies don’t have to be flown in to the same extent.”

“I would urge the CNMI to continue to build relationships and partnerships with the [other] Pacific Islands,” he added. He also recommended that government leaders look into joining the Emergency Managers Assistance Compact.

“It’s been a great partnership out here, not only with CNMI officials, from the governor and his level and from the mayors on both [Tinian and Saipan]…to impacted survivors of this event,” he said in closing. “We’ve been treated really well by everyone here. Our staff is trying to go the extra mile to make sure that we look for every program that will help those individuals not only recover but build back stronger and better for the next event.”