Recovery, in terms of housing, education, and the economy, is the focus of the Torres administration this year, according to press secretary Kevin Bautista.
The goal for 2020 is to get people’s homes rebuilt, get schools started on reconstruction, and get businesses back up and running, he said in an interview with Saipan Tribune.
“Recovery is our top priority, as always,” Bautista said. “We have the resources to speed up building, especially now that we have an infusion of 3,000 new [foreign] workers that are now approved for construction, which is something that the governor has…been advocating for since 2018.”
The 2020 national appropriations bill, which U.S. President Donald Trump enacted in late December, includes Delegate Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan’s (Ind-MP) Disaster Recovery Workforce Act, providing for the CNMI federal funds that would allow an additional 3,000 foreign workers to do typhoon recovery work until 2022.
In December, Federal Emergency Management Agency regional administrator Robert Fenton said that rebuilding of homes will now be moving a lot faster as they are maximizing the available workforce to speed it up.
Also, elements of the reconstruction that took time are now in the can, including the approved engineering drawings and the construction materials that are now on the island. There are 148 homes under the FEMA repair program, and 178 under its construction program.
With schools, Bautista said the administration of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres has been working with the Northern Marianas College, the CNMI Public School System, and the State Board of Education to ensure the rapid rebuilding of several school campuses around the island, like Hopwood Middle School, NMC, and schools in the south.
The schools have been using tents, approved and agreed upon by the governor, BOE, NMC, and PSS to ensure steady, normal school operations after the typhoon hit the islands.
“Based off of the projections in our conversations with FEMA, and our dialogue on our project worksheets, we are in the process of building facilities for the schools, Hopwood, NMC, and all the other schools that were affected, rebuild them from the ground up and make them some of the best schools and education facilities in the Pacific,” Bautista added.
NMC, for one, was recently awarded $21.9 million by the U.S. Department of Education, which NMC interim president Frankie Eliptico said would go a long way to assist the college’s recovery effort, and in building “modern, state-of-the-art, and resilient buildings and facilities.”
As for the economy, the goal is to get businesses back up and running by renewing small business entrepreneurship, attracting new ones, and increasing investor confidence in the Marianas.
According to Bautista, the government wants to ensure that it is easier to do business in the Commonwealth.
“The biggest thing for us is to diversify our overall economy.” he said. “It’s not just going to be based off the tourism industry and the gaming industry, which essentially is just one industry. It’s also ensuring that we ensure the viability of the cannabis industry that we are working on through our [Commonwealth] Cannabis Commission.”
CCC has already completed two of the three sections of the law that they are trying to push out—homegrown and commercial, with the drafting of the regulations for medicinal to begin this year. The commission has until March 20, 2020, to come up with the regulations governing the use, production, and selling of cannabis in the CNMI.
As for tourism, Bautista said the government remains set on revitalizing the Japanese market. Skymark Airlines, Inc. launched in December its first ever regular international service, which is a non-stop flight connecting Narita, Japan and Saipan.
“[The government] ensures that the Marianas Visitors Authority has the resources that it needs to succeed so we can continue to promote the Marianas as a first-class, first-choice destination for tourists in not just the China, Japan, and Korea market, but also within the Western Pacific and Asia region,” he added.