The man who salvaged VITEMA


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ST. CROIX - Mark Walters' career has been one disaster after another.

But the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency director, who is leaving that position to return to his regular job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the end of the month, said that so far, it's been incredibly rewarding for him to be there to help people when disaster strikes.

"I fell in love with it," he said of being one of those who "comes in and provides a helping hand" during times of disaster. "I enjoyed it from day one."

In fact, it wasn't until disaster struck in the Virgin Islands that Walters made a move to work in emergency management. Before that, it had not been part of his plan.

Walters, 46, was born on St. Croix and grew up on St. Thomas. He was working as a station agent on St. Thomas with a seaplane shuttle service when Hurricane Hugo struck. The service lost its entire fleet during Hugo and went bankrupt, putting Walters out of a job.

FEMA was recruiting locals to work in the wake of Hugo, and Walters applied and got a job.

A month later, the Loma Prieta earthquake in California prompted the call-back of some FEMA managers who had been working on the ground in the Virgin Islands. That opened up management possibilities for Walters, who became disaster housing manager in the territory and undertook a progression of responsibilities for the federal agency.

He stayed with FEMA after its Hugo response, first going to help set up a FEMA office in Puerto Rico and later moving on to Washington, D.C., and New York.

VITEMA

In 2008, Gov. John deJongh Jr. approached Walters about coming back to work in the Virgin Islands.

"When the governor told me what he wanted to do with 911 and creating a new agency, I was really excited," Walters said. "He wanted someone who knew the government well. I'd always wanted to come back home."

Walters, though, had just been promoted to divisional director in FEMA Region 2 in New York and did not want to jeopardize that position.

So deJongh negotiated with FEMA.

FEMA ultimately loaned Walters to the local government, through an Interagency Personnel Agreement, a formal program that allows for personnel exchanges between different levels of government.

FEMA paid his salary while he worked here, and Walters took the helm at VITEMA on June 24, 2008.

There was nothing, he said, that could have properly prepared him for what he found.

"I kind of knew before what to expect. But to be honest, I really didn't know," Walters said. "It was only when I sat in the chair, in the position, that I really found out what the issues were. Nothing could prepare you for it."

There was no shortage of issues, he said.

"The organizational structure of VITEMA was not functional. Grants management was poor. Financial management was poor to non-existent," Walters said. "We had bills that were not being paid, vendors that were not being paid."

He found out about the extent of unpaid bills after a trip to the barbershop one weekend, when someone he did not know approached him and asked him if he was the new VITEMA director.

"This guy came up to me and asked me if I was the manager of VITEMA," Walters said. "Then he said, 'you owe me money.'"

"When we were checking on that, that's when we found we owed a lot of people money," Walters said, noting that there were unpaid bills going back as far as 1998. "There were staff in the agency who were making commitments without the resources to make those commitments."

Problems he faced immediately included the fact that VITEMA was being evicted from its offices across from the Nisky Center on St. Thomas for nonpayment of rent, while other vendors were reluctant to do business with the agency because of its poor history of paying bills, Walters said. One manager had hired staff members with no central government authorization or funding in place.

"We had to do triage immediately," Walters said. "It was just a mess. We had to stabilize the organization."

He made some staff changes and put some financial controls in place.

Then, the governor worked with the agency to identify funds to pay off vendors and asked the V.I. Legislature for the appropriation, Walters said. The V.I. Senate voted to provide the funding.

"The governor gave us the support to address some of these legacy issues, so we have regained our credibility with our vendors," Walters said, noting that the long-overdue bills were "an embarrassment - just an embarrassment."

The agency also was able to enter into an agreement with the landlord to pay rent promptly - an agreement that kept the eviction proceedings from moving forward, Walters said.

"We just had not been managing our finances," he said. "The money was there, but we were not managing it well."

Reorganization and E911

DeJongh's priorities included reorganizing VITEMA and completely overhauling the territory's 911 system, with Walters overseeing the changes.

"He made the commitment. We took the ball and ran with it," Walters said, noting that other government agencies also were working toward the goal, providing VITEMA with support and help when needed.

The idea behind the reorganization was that the new VITEMA would keep the functions the old VITEMA had but add in different elements from other agencies that were part of its mission, including the 911 function from the V.I. Police Department, the Public Assistance program from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Homeland Security from the Adjutant General's Office.

The new VITEMA also would be removed from the V.I. Adjutant General's Office to make it a freestanding executive branch agency.

"We had to make the case to the Legislature and the public about why it needed to be done," Walters said.

The Legislature agreed to the proposition, and the new VITEMA was born.

VITEMA, incorporating the new elements, then was organized into a tried and tested, nationally recognized management structure: the National Incident Command System, Walters said.

Federal agencies are organized under the same system, making it easy for them to "fold seamlessly into our operations" when necessary, Walters said.

DeJongh also had put a high priority on overhauling the territory's antiquated 911 system. The government spent years planning and building the infrastructure for a system to replace the old 911 system, which was outmoded and unreliable.

The new $17 million 911 system automated much of the emergency dispatching process and brought all first responders in the territory under a central dispatch. Previously, operators had been police dispatchers, and they had to manually call other agencies for any other type of emergency, Walters said.

911 coverage of the territory also improved, while police dispatchers who wanted to be part of the new 911, along with new hires, went through specialized training to upgrade their skills and customer service.

The new system went live in 2009.

Other changes

Walters also was able to acquire 42 generators from FEMA for use in the territory, after hearing that the federal agency was rotating a number of them out of service.

They were delivered to the territory with assistance from the National Guard, which incorporated the delivery into a real world exercise, utilizing a convoy of C-130 air cargo planes.

The generators were placed throughout the territory in critical facilities, including public shelters, government offices and in spots where they would provide backup for the 911 system, Walters said.

VITEMA also moved to new offices near King Airport on St. Thomas earlier this year. Walters oversaw the build-out of the offices.

Under Walters' tenure, VITEMA also:

- Launched VI Alert, the territory's all-hazards alert and notification system, which receives and issues warnings and watches in real time as agencies, such as the National Weather Service and Alaska Tsunami Warning System, issue them.

Residents can sign up for VI Alert at www.vitema.gov and choose to receive the alerts in a variety of ways, including via landline, cell phone, e-mail, text messages or faxes.

- Began the process of implementing a tsunami warning system for the territory, with the first 10 sirens expected to be installed in March.

- Oversaw four presidential disaster declarations, three of them this year.

Returning to FEMA

FEMA extended Walters' time in the Virgin Islands from one year to two and then for another six months. His tenure as VITEMA director ends as the year ends this week.

"There is no clean break," Walters said. "But FEMA has been more than generous, allowing me to stay here."

He said he was leaving "with a heavy heart" and will miss the people he has worked with here.

"These folks are like family to me. It's beyond the job," Walters said. "When you go through something that's difficult, you bond, you share common experiences. It's been a long two-and-a-half years. The people - that's the part I'm going to miss the most."

Bringing in people from different agencies and facilitating their working together under VITEMA to accomplish goals is a high point of his tenure at VITEMA, he said.

"I think the people part of it is what I'm most proud of," he said. "Just working with those guys at VITEMA and how we were able to come together from different backgrounds, different organizations, and come together."

Walters said that teamwork - on a variety of levels - is what enabled VITEMA to accomplish so much in such a short period of time.

"This job is impossible to do by yourself. I think the key for this position is how to work with people. If you can't bring people along with you, you can't be effective," he said. "You can't dictate and bark orders. I see myself as empowering people, giving them an environment where they can succeed. The rest is up to them."

Walters said he was only "the face" of the VITEMA changes, which required deJongh's support and a lot of other people working together.

"I have been fortunate. The governor made it a priority. And then I had the support of all the other commissioners," he said.

The support also came from the public and from other branches of government, he said.

"I would like to thank the community because they have also been very supportive," Walters said. "The 28th Legislature - they have been supportive as well. The things we have been able to accomplish would not have been possible without the support of the Legislature."

Walters described his work with VITEMA as "the most challenging, the most stressful job" that he has ever had, where he had to put all his skills to work. He also described it as "the most rewarding."

"I have enjoyed every minute of it," he said. "And I have grown, too, professionally. I believe I am a stronger person now than when I started this job."

He said he hopes his legacy is the new VITEMA.

"I believe we left a legacy of credibility. We now have credibility. When people hear of VITEMA, they view us as a professional organization," he said. "We now have an infrastructure of integrity."

Moving forward

DeJongh appointed Col. Elton Lewis to take the helm at VITEMA when Walters returns to FEMA.

Lewis said he plans to keep moving VITEMA forward.

"I would like to again acknowledge and thank Mark for his leadership, for being the director for the last two years. He has done a tremendous job in building out the infrastructure on St. Thomas, a state-of-the-art building," Lewis said. "During the transition, we had many conversations about the future of VITEMA, and I assured him - and now I'm assuring the people of the Virgin Islands - that I'll do my very best, and I'll take VITEMA to the next level, ensuring that we are poised and prepared to support the governor and the people of the Virgin Islands in the event of emergencies."

Lewis said he wished Walters "the very best in his endeavors with FEMA."

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 774-8772 ext. 455 or e-mail jblackburn@dailynews.vi.Mark Walters, the 46-year-old director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency was working for a seaplane company when Hurricane Hugo devastated its fleet. That prompted Walters to apply for a job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and he worked his way up the agency's ranks before returning to the territory to become the state director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Agency in July 2008.

Disaster Track

His career track at FEMA:

- Disaster Assistance Employee, 1989-1993

- Individual Assistance Specialist, 1993-1997

- Supervisory Information Analysis Officer, 1998-2000

- Senior Individual Assistance Specialist, 2000-2003

- Recovery Branch Chief, 2003-2007

- Acting Information Technology Services Branch Chief, January-September, 2007

- Director, Management Division, September 2007-Present

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