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Regional News

Construction halted on new American Samoa building after FEMA raises concerns

PAGO PAGO (Samoa News/Pacnews) — To address issues of concern raised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency  over the construction of the new Fono or legislative building in American Samoa, Gov. Lolo Matalasi plans to form a task force that will recommend changes to “local regulations that will align more closely with federal statutes.”

Lolo shared the information in his Sept. 28 letter (which Samoa News understands was sent early last week) to FEMA Region IX Administrator, Robert J. Fenton, who had raised in an Aug. 20 letter concerns that the Fono building construction does not comply with federal regulations.

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Failure to comply with federal regulations, Fenton wrote, means a loss of federal funding in the millions of dollars from FEMA, if another disaster happens in American Samoa. It also means a loss of federal monies from other federal agencies. 

“We take the issues you raised very seriously and have suspended construction,” wrote Lolo in his letter to Fenton, who was also informed that Public Works has withheld issuing the “Notice to Proceed” to the company that was awarded the contract.

“I believe this action is a sign of good faith and demonstrates our desire to resolve this matter in an open and cooperative manner,” said Lolo. 

Lolo didn’t identify the name of the construction company, which is Paramount Builders Inc., whose crew and equipment have not been seen at the construction site for more than two weeks.

At the time when Fenton’s letter was received by the governor’s office, Lolo said a variance for the new Fono building’s foundation was being sought in accordance with the American Samoa Floodplains Management Regulations, which were adopted locally and submitted to the Federal Insurance Administrator in 2006.

“It was assumed that since no objections were raised, these regulations were consistent and complied with federal floodplain management statutes,” Lolo wrote to Fenton. “Because of the points you raised, a task force will be formed and assigned to recommend changes to the local regulations in order to align them more closely with federal statutes.”

In his Aug. 20 letter, Fenton noted that FEMA was informed that the original Fono building design called “for an elevated structure on piles/ piers with parking underneath, which would have complied” with the territorial government’s Floodplain Management Regulations.

“However, the design was later modified to include a perimeter foundation and backfilled,” Fenton continued, and explained that buildings using a perimeter foundation, fill, or an elevated slab, are not permitted in the Flood VE Zone, which appears to be where the new Fono building is being constructed.

According to Fenton, VE zone is the “highest-risk flood zone, subject to damaging forces of high waves and high wind.”

In his response letter, Lolo explained that to mitigate any financial losses due to flooding, territorial government property insurance policy includes flood coverage. The policy’s $15 million cap is sufficiently large to cover any historical flood events incurred by the territorial government.

“From a cost-benefit stand point, this strategy is extremely effective,” he argued, noting that [the American Samoa government] paid $637,614 for the flood coverage in 2016 to cover 185 buildings valued at over $136 million. Furthermore, the new Fono building makes up just 10 percent of this premium or about $64,000 assuming a construction cost of $13 million.

“In other words, the $3 million construction savings pays for over 46-years of flood coverage for the new Fono building,” he claimed. “A thorough evaluation is underway to ensure all properties in flood zones are fully covered in our upcoming insurance policy renewal.”

Lolo also shared with Fenton information about the small land area of Tutuila island, home of the new Fono building. He explained that American Samoa’s lush volcanic mountains “are omnipresent” and are separated by the Pacific Ocean “by a very narrow band of flat land.”

“It is difficult to build anything in that band without violating one of the many overlapping federal regulations or having the project’s price escalate to exorbitant levels,” he pointed out.

According to Lolo, “American Samoa is unique” and “federal regulations need to be reconsidered and right-sized when applying them to the territory”.

As for the new Fono building, Lolo said, “we are building it on one of the few available locations that could fit a project of this size and at a price we can afford.”

The governor’s letter is copied to top U.S Interior Department officials, Fono leaders, U.S. Congresswoman Aumua Amata of American Samoa, the White House, and Lt. Gov. Lemanu Sialega Palepoi Mauga.