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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, January 10, 2005

Planning for disasters can help communities survive

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

East Honolulu resident Randy Kaya's family has taken disaster planning to heart.

Juli Kaya and her daughter, Rachel, 12, husband, Randy, and son, Riki, 7, practiced evacuation plans for a tsunami along with their dogs, Zoe and Eddie, at their home in East Honolulu on Saturday morning.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Family members know where to meet — under a tree in the yard — if they're forced out of their home by a fire. Kaya, his wife and two kids also have discussed evacuation routes from the house and know where to meet — at the kids' school — if a disaster occurs while they're away from home.

They have a central telephone contact point — a Mainland friend — in case they're separated in the devastation of a hurricane or tsunami. Each family member has an emergency calling card in case cellular phones are lost or out of service and they can get to a regular phone.

All their important papers are in a single folder so they're easy to gather up and take along, and copies are in a safe deposit box.

"I probably overthink it, but I'd rather be prepared if it hits the fan," Kaya said.

That's precisely the kind of planning that disaster mitigation experts say will help communities survive natural disasters like the tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean Dec. 26.

George Atta, community planner for Group 70, says being higher than four stories, such as the Macy's across from him, should protect those in urban Honolulu if water from a tsunami were to enter the city.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Disaster planner George Atta of Honolulu said a well-prepared community will survive the disaster and the post-disaster period better than a population that depends on government and relief agencies. He has been working on the concept of "resilient communities," and what it takes to make a community capable of responding effectively to a disaster.

Atta is a planner and disaster mitigation specialist with the planning, architectural and design firm Group 70 International. He has consulted on disaster planning, recently updated Honolulu's disaster plan, and has written a disaster mitigation plan for the Northern Mariana Islands that is approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"This (Indian Ocean tsunami) is probably going to be the signature disaster of our lifetime. One thing that has become clear, that this disaster makes clear, is that disasters of this scope are multidimensional. Police and medical workers are wiped out, supplies are limited, there are disease problems, water sources are contaminated, communications and transportation are disrupted.

"We're definitely in a better position than some of these remote fishing villages, but we should understand that even here, larger centers will get attention first. Small communities and families should plan to be self-sufficient for at least a couple of days and perhaps longer," Atta said.

Every household should have a supply of nonperishable food that will last the family at least several days, along with prescription medicines, a first-aid kit, pet food, and other items listed under survival kits in the disaster preparedness pages of any phone book. Sufficient safe water is critical.

"After a disaster, fresh water is probably the most important commodity," Atta said.

Disaster-proof your family

The disaster preparedness pages at the front of the phone book have information on survival kits and where to get information. Have the whole family read and discuss it now, not when an emergency occurs.

Discuss your evacuation routes and techniques. If your roads are jammed at rush hour, assume they'll be impassable in a disaster. It might be better to plan to leave on foot. In some cases, it may be better to go to upper floors of sturdy buildings.

Discuss post-disaster meeting and communication arrangements. If your home is potentially at risk from a hurricane or tsunami, set up in advance an arrangement with family or friends who can provide temporary shelter.

Have important family papers organized and readily accessible in the event of evacuation. Family members may need identification to gain access to their neighborhoods.

Pay special attention to having enough water for an extended period. State Civil Defense suggests having two quarts of water per person per day, and disaster planning expert George Atta recommends having enough for a week or two.

Don't go wandering in destruction zones where you might be mistaken for a looter, and stay off roads to let emergency vehicles move freely: "Emergency personnel need to get in to save lives," said Civil Defense official Brian Yanagi.

State Civil Defense authorities say they expect families to do their own planning.

"Relief efforts are going to go to a major airport, which is next to a major city. The farther people are from main airports and distribution centers, the longer it will take logistically to get to them. Our county Civil Defense agencies do encourage self-reliance for isolated communities," said Brian Yanagi, state Civil Defense tsunami program coordinator.

"Do not wait around and expect government to be able to assist you quickly," he said.

Atta said a resilient community requires organization. For example, in the old days, a traditional Hawaiian kapu system might have designated one stream for washing and bathing, protecting another as a source of drinking water.

"There is less community cohesion now than there was years ago," Atta said. "The most important thing after a disaster is the political and social organization of the survivors. There needs to be some mechanism for a community to self-organize."

Yanagi said community associations or condominium associations should be discussing these issues and involving the entire community, so that there is a widely accepted system already established before a disaster. One discussion some folks should have is whether it's best to evacuate or stay.

Engineer Steven Baldridge of Baldridge and Associates Structural Engineering said that many reinforced concrete high-rises may be able to withstand tsunami waters, so that "vertical evacuation" to the upper floors may be a better option than joining in traffic jams. Atta agreed.

"If everybody jumps into a car and ends up in gridlock, then all those cars will get washed away," Atta said.

Baldridge, who has done emergency planning with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said buildings designed with tsunami and hurricane storm surge in mind may have been built with breakaway walls on the lower floors "so that the load pushes through the building and doesn't take the building with it."

"If an earthquake is from Chile, we've got plenty of time, but if it's from Kona, we only have 20 or 30 minutes. There is a definite realization that in some areas, we don't have time to evacuate," Baldridge said.

He said residents of coastal multistory concrete buildings should ask questions, however, before making assumptions that it's safe to stay in a building.

"You don't want to just hope that because it's concrete, it's going to survive," he said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.