|||Disaster preparedness Are we ready?|
A five-part special report examines how well Hawai'i
is prepared for a hurricane and other natural disasters.
|||Hotels to shelter tourists|
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor
WAILUKU, Maui — You don't need to be an expert on disasters to predict what's likely to happen if a major hurricane slams into Maui County.
Storm surge will pound coastal areas, turning stretches of Honoapi'ilani Highway into rubble and cutting off nearly 20,000 West Maui residents and at least an equal number of tourists from Maui's major airport and the island's only acute-care hospital. Meanwhile, heavy rain will send sheets of water rushing down the leeward slopes of Haleakala and the West Maui Mountains, inundating low-lying areas of Lahaina and Kihei.
In East Maui, flash-flooding will cause numerous landslides along Hana Highway, isolating Hana, Ke'anae, Nahiku, Kipahulu and other small pockets of residents.
Maui County's Emergency Operations Plan doesn't address specific responses to each of these scenarios, but it does lay out a command and task structure to ensure a quick and efficient mobilization of public safety, public works, medical, utility and other resources, said Gen Iinuma, Maui County Civil Defense administrator.
And if remote communities such as Moloka'i, Lana'i, Hana and even Lahaina are disconnected from the central command, Iinuma said, there are trained county officials, well-known and respected in their communities, designated to take charge.
Still, all the experience and planning will not stave off the mass destruction that can be expected from a hurricane like Katrina or a tsunami like last year's Indian Ocean calamity.
"I don't think anybody's prepared for that kind of disaster," said Wesley Lo, head of Maui Memorial Medical Center in Wailuku.
Glenn James, senior weather analyst at the Pacific Disaster Center in Kihei, said Maui hasn't been hit by a hurricane since the 1860s, although it sustained damage from Iniki and other storms that struck harder elsewhere in the Islands. He said storm surge and flash-flooding are the two biggest threats from a hurricane, and Maui's coastal developments from Hana, Spreckelsville and Paukukalo to Kapalua, Lahaina, Kihei and Makena are at risk.
"With storm surge, you have a wall of water that comes ahead of the eye of the storm and washes well inland," he said. "Right along the coast where you have a lot of development, those people are the most suspect. It's not going to come in miles, but it certainly could be blocks," he said.
Places such as Kihei and Lahaina — "dry areas that aren't used to a lot of rain" — are particularly susceptible to flash-flooding, James said. "If you're in a low-elevation area, you're going to have flooding," he said.
Like the rest of the state, Maui County, with nearly 130,000 residents, has a shortage of emergency shelters, and that worries Iinuma. "The population has outgrown the shelter space," he said.
There are 23 emergency shelters on Maui, with space for about 36,000 people — more than 25,000 short of what's needed. Moloka'i has three shelters that can accommodate a third of its population of 7,400, and Lana'i's single shelter can hold 650 of the island's 3,200 residents. There are only three emergency shelters for all of West Maui, and all three are accessible via a single street, Lahainaluna Road.
The population numbers do not take into account the 40,000 or so tourists visiting Maui on any given day. These guests likely will be taken care of by the hospitality industry, centered in Kihei and Wailea in South Maui, and along the West Maui coast from Ka'anapali to Kapalua.
In addition to insufficient shelter space, Iinuma is concerned about protecting the elderly and disabled during a hurricane or other disaster. And with Maui's population increasing by almost 30 percent since 1990, he's also worried about residents "new to the Island lifestyle who may not have the wherewithal for self-sufficiency."
Longtime Maui County residents, particularly those on Moloka'i and Lana'i, are familiar with supply shortages from delayed barge shipments or shipping strikes, he said, and would be better able to cope and adapt in the aftermath of a disaster. Iinuma said he would like to see more citizen groups organized to assist their own neighborhoods should they be cut off from help.
Several such efforts already are under way in the county, including a medical reserve corps and the national Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and Community Emergency Response Team programs.
Mayor Alan Arakawa judged the county well-prepared "within the capacity of what we can do." He said backup systems are in place to ensure water and sewer services could resume relatively quickly under most circumstances.
"With most of the things that can happen, we're very confident we have the staffing and capabilities in place," he said.
LACK OF HOSPITAL SPACE
In the event of widespread destruction, Arakawa said, he sees major vulnerabilities in the transportation infrastructure. Maui, Moloka'i and Lana'i each has a single shipping port and a single airport capable of handling jet flights. Major damage to harbor and airport facilities means it could be days before air or boat lifts are able to bring in food and fuel or take people out.
Iinuma said that's when family disaster preparedness will pay dividends. "Government is here to help out but you need to help yourself to be self-reliant until we can go out and help you," he said.
Arakawa also feels Maui Memorial Medical Center, with 200 beds, isn't big enough for the island's growing population, even during normal times. The situation could become more dire if hospitals on O'ahu were unable to accept Neighbor Island patients after a statewide disaster.
"I'm very concerned that we have one old hospital that would not be able to serve the community in case something catastrophic happens. We need something that is much larger," he said.
The mayor has been talking for more than a year with Hawai'i Health Systems Corp., which runs Maui Memorial, and other officials about opening a 400-bed hospital in Central Maui, home to about half the island's population. The new hospital could be build on 45 acres set aside for medical facilities in an Alexander & Baldwin development in Kahului, Arakawa said.
Separate groups also have announced plans to build hospitals in West Maui and Kihei.
At Maui Memorial, Lo said, disaster drills are conducted four or five times a year. The hospital building itself, well outside flood and tsunami zones, is equipped with hurricane windows and is virtually "impregnable," he said.
With the approach of a hurricane or tsunami, Lo said, hospital staff would work to clear more empty beds, discharging noncritical patients to make space for possible victims. If there are a large number of injured trapped in areas where roads have been blocked, Lo said, "reverse evacuations" would be conducted, with medical teams flown to the scene to provide treatment. A key asset of the emergency medical response would be the county's new helicopter ambulance, launched a year ago.
Maui Electric Co. personnel regularly get real-life experience responding to weather-related and manmade disruptions in service, and the utility has long been preparing for large-scale disasters, even going so far as to identify housing for employees stuck for days working in trouble spots.
"We have been planning for a situation like that. After (Hurricane) Iniki, we put a lot of effort into making sure our system has redundancies," said MECO president Ed Reinhardt. "If distribution lines and substations are still intact, we feel we can come back pretty quickly."
MECO installed steel poles that can withstand winds of 100 mph and gusts to 120 mph to carry transmission lines from its power plants to key population centers. The three transmission lines to West Maui — two supported by wooden poles, one by steel poles — are designed so that if needed, one line could carry the entire power load if the other two go down.
MECO installed two generators in Hana to provide electricity to the area's 2,000 residents in the event transmission lines from Central Maui are lost. In the past, when power lines strung across valleys went down, it sometimes took several days to restore service. With the generators on standby, "we can come back online within hours," Reinhardt said.
Power plants on Lana'i and Moloka'i were built to withstand hurricane-strength winds, and the 200-megawatt Ma'alaea Power Plant is above the tsunami inundation zone, while vital equipment at the 34-megawatt Kahului plant is housed in raised structures that would keep it above flood or tsunami waters.
Redundancies also are a feature of the county's wastewater system. Pump stations were designed with thick walls and security doors, and all wastewater facilities have backup pumps and generators, according to Mike Miyamoto, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Environmental Management.
The Kahului Wastewater Treatment Plant, on the shoreline, was modified so that critical equipment is higher above ground than the 21-foot inundation level from a 100-year tsunami, Miyamoto said.
"For me, being an engineer, the only thing that could really affect our sewage system is an earthquake," he said.
One key piece of the county's emergency response system that could benefit from upgrading is the Civil Defense Agency's office and operating center, on the ground floor of the 33-year-old Kalana O Maui county building in Wailuku.
Arakawa said he's "green with envy" over Kaua'i County's new $17.7 million public safety building with a state-of-the-art emergency operations center, and is considering asking permission to use federal homeland security money to construct a new center on Maui.
For the time being, Maui officials will have to be satisfied with a formal update of the county's 1985 Emergency Operations Plan. A request for proposals has been issued seeking a contractor for the job.
Reach Christie Wilson at email@example.com.