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Lolo pleads American Samoa’s case for federal emergency declaration

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Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — American Samoa needs additional federal financial resources to address the deadly coronavirus, which has “hemorrhaged our local revenues”, says Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga, who noted that ASG’s is estimated to close the current fiscal year with a more than $5 million budget deficit, but could “triple” as ASG depends on its financial resources to combat the pandemic.

These are among the governor’s arguments made in his Apr. 13th letter requesting US President Donald Trump to consider a coronavirus presidential “declaration for a major disaster... for American Samoa”. Trump last Friday gave his approval. (See separate story in Monday’s edition for details.)

Lolo wrote to Trump in a letter via the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Regional IX office.

He noted that he received information on major emergency declarations the president issued for some of the territories and “we addressed the issue with FEMA which indicated that American Samoa need not pursue the same route” as the President’s national emergency declaration “was sufficient to access federal assistance and the fact that we did not have a confirmed COVID-19 case.”

However, the governor appeared unmoved by FEMA’s reaction, by informing Trump, “For American Samoa, major events such as the measles epidemic outbreak, three consecutive tropical storms, and now the coronavirus pandemic have hemorrhaged our local revenues.”

The governor cited ASG Treasury Department financial data, which shows that revenues versus expenditures for Oct. 1, 2019 to Feb. 29, 2020 yielded an estimated fund balance deficit of more than $5.33 million at the close of FY 2020.

He explained that the estimated deficit reflects the financial impact of the actions implemented to fight the measles outbreak and the three back-to-back storms during a one-week period in February.

Under current restrictions, Lolo said some businesses have closed such as daycare centers; stoppage of all cruise ships from entering; shortening business operating hours from 6a.m. to 6p.m including all forms of transportation; suspension of Hawaiian Airlines flights and other actions to enforce social distancing.

Such actions, he said, “dramatically altered the revenue base upon which the deficit balance” of more than $5.33 million was determined.

“While revenues are now projected to plummet significantly, expenditures have increased attributed to construction of quarantine facilities, medical supplies and overtime accumulation for first responders,” he explained. “It is now estimated that the end of the year negative fund balance will triple.”

According to the governor, the “ticking economic time bomb” for the territory is the possible closure of StarKist Samoa in the event American Samoa gets its first confirmed COVID-19 case.

“To support our national effort to secure our supply chain and food security, I have allowed StarKist to continue to operate in spite of public criticism of the risk that it poses by remaining opening,” Lolo explained. “If and when StarKist’s operation is compelled to shutdown, an economic earthquake will occur creating an economic tsunami that will obliterate American Samoa’s economy with reciprocal social devastation.”

Pursuant to federal law, the governor requested Trump to “declare a major disaster” for American Samoa as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He requested a “favorable expedition” of a federal declaration without the need to complete preliminary damage assessment — pursuant to provisions of federal law.

Lolo appointed local Homeland Security Department director Samana Semo Ve’ave’a as the State Coordinating Officer and the governor’s chief of staff, Fiu Johnny Saelua, as the Governor’s Authorized Representative (GAR) for this request.

To mitigate the “catastrophic impacts” of COVID-19, Lolo explained his administrations actions. Saying, “Clearly, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic after dealing with the measles epidemic requires significantly more effort and resources than the American Samoa Government has available at its disposal.”

“I am gravely concerned that limited funding remaining from this contraction in the economy will not even be enough to pay” for expenditures such as police officers and vehicles, local matching share of the Medicaid Program, the required 25% FEMA match, support needs of the hospital, utilities of government facility and “protect[ing] the well-being of our community and our environment,” the governor said.

He also said ASG is doing everything it can to adapt to the ongoing pandemic by implementing emergency policies and mobilizing resources and manpower to the Health Department, LBJ Medical Center, emergency first responders and the general public.

“However, I must reiterated that our local resources are minimal and far less than the capacity we need to wholly protect and safeguard the public from a pandemic of this magnitude,” Lolo pointed out.

And if “this incident is of such severity and magnitude based on the experience of states and territories, then the most effective response is beyond the capabilities of the American Samoa Government and supplemental federal assistance is necessary to save lives and protect property, public health and safety, and to lessen the effects of this imminent catastrophe,” he said.

Lolo’s five-page request letter included 13 more pages of the ASG official request form, COVID-19 declarations and other supporting documents.