As Pauline Dawes, Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Department of Human Services (USVI -DHS) Division of Family Services, stands on the sun-lit boardwalk, a warm sea breeze flows around her. It’s a picture-perfect day filled with ocean waves crashing on the beach, cruise ships docking with happy vacationers, and seagulls cawing in the background. As far as anyone can see, it’s another gorgeous day in paradise on the U.S. Virgin Islands. However, this is the backdrop of a region that has dealt with significant difficulties over the last year.
In the late summer months and early fall of 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept across the Caribbean region bringing with them a destructive force that decimated towns, cities, and entire territories in their paths. For over 100,000 people that live on the U.S. Virgin Islands, this meant preparing for the worst.
The people of the U.S Virgin Islands are no strangers to hurricanes. Being located in the Caribbean, tropical storms come with the shifting seasons. However, the storms of 2017 brought an unprecedented struggle, testing the disaster recovery plans for citizens and officials across the islands.
“Our territory was hit with two category five hurricanes. Hurricane Irma came with winds. It took off roofs and walls of buildings fell in. It was really devastating. Hurricane Maria brought the rain. For us to have two back-to-back [hurricanes] literally put us in a state of shock,” says Debora Francis, Department of Human Services, Division of Family Assistance.
DHS Jumping into action
The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Human Services (USVI-DHS) Division of Family Assistance is a government-funded agency that provides need-based entitlement programs to communities. During disaster relief efforts, they are the ones responsible for administering the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP). D-SNAP helps communities in need with home expenses, business repairs, temporary shelter, evacuation or relocation, food loss, and power outages.
After the 2017 hurricanes hit, DHS was tasked with ensuring residents across the islands had access to resources they needed to recover from the destruction. With over 50,000 people needing immediate assistance, the organization faced a set of particularly difficult obstacles.
In the past, the organization operated on network systems that made it difficult to share information across the territory to process D-SNAP applications in a quick and timely fashion. Because of the circumstances they were placed in, they needed an emergency management solution that could allow them to get services and resources to communities as fast as possible to alleviate the struggles associated with disaster recovery.
A cloud solution for disaster recovery
Watching the events unfold from their headquarters in Chicago, RedMane – a Microsoft partner – reached out to Microsoft to secure USVI a donation of $30,000 of cloud processing with Azure Government. They were able to do so through the Azure Grants Program, a philanthropic initiative of Microsoft aimed to empower people and communities.
“Microsoft was very eager to help. It wasn’t something that we had to go through a lot of approvals to get going, and it wasn’t time consuming. They were very proactive in offering help we didn’t even think about as far as engineering services and technical support. There were no glitches, it was seamless,” said Bob Borneman, Business Manager, RedMane.
Three weeks after arriving to the USVI, RedMane had a system up and running with Azure Government that allowed DHS to process D-SNAP applications and send transactions to EBT card vendors from any point across the territory.
With an easy to use platform in place, and the willingness of communities to come together in a time of trouble, citizen volunteer along with the resilient and hardworking staff of DHS processed.
The future of cloud processing for USVI-DHS
With a cloud infrastructure in place, DHS is now exploring new opportunities to expand the technology and help them “hurricane proof” their systems to ensure disaster recovery efforts continue to have speedy and reliable results. They are also hoping to implement self-serve applications so citizens have greater access to resources and services. This new technology infrastructure will also help save time, money, and hassle that will translate into savings for communities across the island.
Natural disasters like the one the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands found themselves in can often times lead to devastating results. However, in this situation, people across the island came together with resiliency and determination to resolve problems associate with disaster recover. Community cohesion, backed by the power of cloud computing, has given USVI a new set of tools to create a robust emergency management solution.