Members of Parliament on Wednesday approved additional government funding to help homeowners and farmers impacted by Tropical Storm Grace.
The Finance Committee granted an extra $3 million for the housing repair programme and another $140,000 to hire three temporary staff to facilitate the disbursement of funds to qualifying residents and businesses whose properties were damaged by the storm.
The three additional staff will assess both the property damage and necessary repairs after Grace, as well as the financial situation of the applicants.
Even before TS Grace, the programme’s two permanent staff members were dealing with about 90 cases. Some homeowners have been waiting up to 18 months for repairs, ranging from roofing and flooring to electrical work, to be carried out.
Social Development Minister André Ebanks noted that many properties had been damaged by the storm while they were waiting for repairs. And more homeowners who cannot afford to repair their properties have been added to the list.
“Due to Grace, we thought it was prudent to expand the team temporarily to the end of the year, to increase the ability to process applications and assess homes,” he said in Finance Committee.
Under the existing programme, government assistance is capped at $25,000 per case but the minister has the discretion to waive the cap.
Ebanks said that is something he would anticipate, because “since the programme didn’t run in 2020 and for the first part of 2021, a lot of the cases have gotten more and more urgent.”
The minister is proposing an accelerated approval process to deal with “the crisis due to Grace”.
Until now, applicants would first be means-tested and assessed financially before the housing repair team would make a baseline assessment of the damages. The housing repair committee would on that basis put the work out to bid to three contractors and then decide which bid deserved the award.
He added that government was also attempting to expand its pool of contractors to get work done quicker.
Crop farmers hit hardest
The committee also approved $3 million to help farmers affected by tropical storm damage.
Agriculture Minister Jay Ebanks reported that of the 145 impacted farmers, 119 were crop farmers, including 25 large banana and plantain growers.
The approved income support will be based on the level of damage to the farms. The funding will be paid as a monthly stipend to help farmers through hurricane season and enable them to pay farm workers.
Opposition member Alden McLaughlin, who has a large crop farm with more than 1,200 fruit trees in East End, said he supported the extra funding to help farmers survive.
“I am very lucky because I don’t rely on the farm as my source of income,” he said. But most farmers are not in that position and would need assistance. Plantain and banana growers in particular would have to wait nine months for the trees to bear fruit again.
Many other fruit trees can be saved, McLaughlin said, explaining that of the 300 trees downed by the storm on his farm, only four were lost. “So it can be done, but it’s not cheap.”
McLaughlin said it was increasingly difficult to make a living from farming anywhere in the world and especially in Cayman. Nonetheless the extent of farming in the islands is often not understood, he added.