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FEMA: Still in response mode — 2nd declaration needed for assistance

A home destroyed by Tropical Storm Gita  on the west side of Tutuila. [SN file photot]
A 2nd declaration, a major one, is needed for FEMA assistance programs to happen

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Preliminary assessment disaster (PDA) will be wrapping up soon, says US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) public information officer, Victor Inge, who arrived early last week. PDA provides data of damage to public infrastructure as well as homes and business following Tropical Storm Gita, which hit Tutuila on Feb. 9.

“We’re supporting the governor and the territory’s priorities,” Inge said in a Samoa News interview yesterday. “We are seeing signs of recovery, schools are going to reopen [today] and we’ve seen some significant impacts to some primary residences.”

He also says that FEMA has asked people who suffered impacts to their primary residences to go ahead and take pictures of the damage and to clean up.

“In essence not to wait for us, to go ahead and get your lives back together,” he said.

Also on island since early last week is FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer for the local disaster, Benigno Bern Ruiz, as well as a small FEMA team, deployed to American Samoa, two days after US President Donald J. Trump, approved Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga’s request for a federal declaration that an emergency exists in the territory.

Inge explained that the presidential emergency declaration “allowed us to move forward and begin to pre position supplies, and get things headed this way.”

Asked about the type of pre position supplies, he responded, “We typically move things that are going to be needed that we know of, such as cots, blankets — commodities and personnel, the incident management assistance team, or IMAT,” the chief resources that provide a forward federal presence of coordination and response to a disaster.

The IMAT team last week joined the ASG EOC damage assessment teams conducting assessment of disaster-related damages for individual loss and public infrastructure.

The outcome of these assessments will determine which individuals qualify for FEMA’s Individual Assistance (IA) or Public Assistance (PA) program.

The FEMA team assesses the local situation and determines what the needs are and if there are unmet needs, according to Inge.

At this point, “we’re still in ‘response mode’ and we’re moving towards recovery,” said Inge, and “we are in the process of wrapping up our preliminary damage assessments” with local and federal partners collecting data — with the first team looking at damage to infrastructure, such as roads, public building.

And the second team is “primarily looking at things that impacted homeowners, renters and business owners,” he explained.

“The first team is looking at things... to support a request for a declaration that would cover Public Assistance — in terms of damaged infrastructure,” he explained. “And the second team is gathering data that would be used to determine impacts to primary homes, businesses.”

Outcome or data of the assessments is then handed over to American Samoa to help with formulating a second request to the federal government for a “major declaration that would trigger the [federal] programs that would help the territory rebuild its infrastructure and to provide assistance to homeowners, renters and business owners,” said Inge.

He stressed that currently, “there’s no help for individuals” — homeowners, renters and business owners, adding, “We are working towards making a request for that.”

“Right now we’re providing what is called [for] under the emergency declaration, which allows us to provide direct federal assistance to the territory, whether it’s resources — which are people — and any unmet needs the territory has. And it’s by design to save lives and protect property,” he explained.

The emergency declaration “allows us to get moving down here. Now we’re here and what we’re doing are those damage assessments, that’s going to support the governor’s request to the President for a major declaration, in essence it’s another major declaration.”

As to how long FEMA will be on island — a question that many have asked not only to Samoa News but, directly to Inge and other federal partners, the FEMA official said, “We’re going to be here as long as we’re needed. We’re going to be here until our jobs are completed.”

Right now, “we are working, we call it leaning forward, we are leaning forward in anticipation of [a second] declaration, so in the event that comes it won’t take us long to get set up and be able to speed up, as we are on the ground already,” he noted.

While PDA is ongoing this means, FEMA programs to file claims for federal assistance are not available.

And FEMA is also not hiring.

FEMA along with its local partners will provide updates through this newspaper and radio.