In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one question haunts residents of Hawai'i, the most isolated urban population on the planet: Are we prepared for a similar disaster here at home?
The honest answer from people who make civil defense their primary concern: No. But we're getting there.
While it's impossible to predict the precise circumstances of a disaster, what's most important is that a command structure is solidly in place and that multiple networks of communication are kept open so that well-informed, advance instructions can be issued at the earliest possible time.
Much of that basic structure exists, although some critical gaps must be closed if we are to weather disasters with minimal loss and suffering.
With considerable military support at the ready and given some painful learning experiences from the past, we are indeed better prepared than many states. The most recent natural disaster of any magnitude locally was Hurricane 'Iniki, which devastated Kaua'i and very nearly delivered a direct hit on O'ahu.
Some preparedness work began almost immediately after that 1992 storm. And while that work has accelerated since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it generally has proceeded in fits and starts over the years.
Planning how to move people efficiently through streets and to shelters, for example, is still being refined. Considering how congested our streets are already, that's simply unacceptable.
Because we rely on external resources for our survival needs, our commitment to becoming self-sustaining is crucial. Instead, we're playing a serious game of catch-up, leaning heavily on the odds that disaster won't hit us too soon.
NO EASY EVACUATION
Our greatest vulnerability lies in the reality that the Islands can't be easily evacuated.
The overwhelming majority of residents will have no choice but to hunker down until the danger has passed.
After 'Iniki, civil defense authorities began the process of upgrading public facilities to serve as shelters, but that effort has fallen alarmingly short. Even with completion of the most current "retrofit" projects on the books, we're still lacking shelter space for an estimated 100,000 residents — or more.
Some funding for this work was allotted in the past legislative session, but a spotty record of providing adequate funds has left a backlog of about 17 buildings, most of them on public school campuses, needing an upgrade to serve as potential shelters.
Public safety should be the No. 1 priority driving public policy, and lawmakers owe taxpayers a consistent commitment to fund disaster preparedness.
Disaster-planning officials say they'll resubmit a proposal that failed two years ago. Under this plan, civil defense authorities would weigh in on the design of all new public facilities, to examine the potential for additional shelter space early on.
This sensible approach is also good fiscal policy. State civil defense officials collaborated in the blueprints for the convention center, for example. The upgrades to its exhibition hall, which could house 1,800 storm evacuees, cost about $127,000 — compared to $100,000 to retrofit a Big Island school cafeteria with a shelter capacity of only 320.
Planning ahead brings much more bang for the buck.
Beyond the public facilities, the state also has embarked on an important program of certifying hotel spaces as private disaster shelters. And a new subsidy will allow homeowners to create their own family shelters — "safe rooms" within their houses.
That's critical, especially considering that many people will opt to stay at home if at all possible.
HAVE SURVIVAL KIT
Every household should prepare its own survival kit with enough supplies to last at least four days.
Being ready when disaster strikes is also a personal responsibility.
We can take some comfort that a consortium of first responders and officials meets regularly to discuss emergency contingencies. But that high-level concern must filter down to the rest of us.
Witnessing what happened on the Gulf Coast, this state can't afford to let its own vulnerabilities languish until it's too late.