By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer
Despite fixes to electric and other utility systems in Hawai'i after Hurricane Iniki hit in 1992, a catastrophic hurricane such as Katrina or Rita would seriously disrupt power, telephone and water service, and no one can predict when those basics would be restored.
Since Iniki, which swept south to north across Kaua'i with powerful winds, utilities have put lines underground; moved and redesigned some facilities to withstand hurricane-force winds; and even reconfigured the way power is transmitted.
But while the companies say they feel comfortable with their disaster plans and with the improvements they've made since Iniki, none would speculate about how many people would be left without service and for how long in the event of a Category 4 or 5 storm.
"These things will unfold like nobody ever expected," said Thomas Joaquin, Hawaiian Election Co. senior vice president in charge of operations. "I sleep very well at night but there is always more to be done."
One weakness: the roughly 55,000 wooden, above-ground utility poles on O'ahu that carry power, telephone and cable lines, and supply power to streetlights in residential neighborhoods. HECO has more than 3,000 miles of electrical transmission and distribution lines, 40 percent of which are underground.
While all O'ahu neighborhoods built after 1966 are required to have underground power lines, a January 2004 windstorm with sustained winds of 40 mph and gusts up to 85 mph knocked 41 poles over, and almost 70,000 customers lost power. Most of the problems were on the North Shore, in Windward O'ahu and in Wahiawa.
A Category 4 hurricane packs sustained winds in excess of 140 mph.
"We'll have our work cut out for us," said HECO spokesman Jose Dizon.
Among the fixes put in by utility companies:
Greater detail on fixes, however, is being kept from the public.
At the request of the Public Utilities Commission, all utility companies were asked to submit emergency response plans in 2001. Those plans were updated in 2004, but they are confidential, said Kevin Katsura, legal counsel for the commission.
HECO officials decline to speculate about how many of its 409,555 customers statewide would lose power if the Islands were raked with hurricane-force winds. But outages would be significant, HECO's Dizon said.
In part to better prepare for a disaster, HECO is spending more than $106 million on two projects that it says will improve its power transmission system on O'ahu over the next several years. Officials hope the systems can be up and running properly before they are tested by a hurricane.
The projects include the construction of "a more secure, state-of-the-art dispatch center which is the central brain of the electric system," said Chuck Freedman, HECO vice president for communications. The center allows HECO to control how power gets to different parts of the island, rerouting power to areas cut off by damaged lines.
There's also the $56 million East O'ahu Transmission Project, or EOTP, designed to "increase the reliability of HECO's system that moves electric power from power plants to customers," Freedman said.
"EOTP would allow electric power to be shifted between the northern and southern corridors in the eastern portion by installing additional transformer capacity and subtransmission lines," he said. "This capability is highly valuable in an emergency when lines in the northern or southern corridor are cut off and can be 'back-fed' through the EOTP link."
The utility will go before the Public Utilities Commission in November to seek final approval for the project.
HECO also conducts disaster preparedness drills at least twice a year, assessing readiness along with state and O'ahu Civil Defense officials and other private and public utilities. The company simulates loss of power to various sections of the grid and mobilizes crews in the field.
Freedman acknowledged that the drills have their limits, however.
"You can't plan for every type of scenario that can happen," he said. "We're an island. You can do a lot of things to get ready, but you can't hurricane-proof an island."
If electric power is knocked out, the water supply to some of the 166,000 Board of Water Supply customers would be affected.
Su Shin, board spokeswoman, said widespread power failures could disable the system's 170 pump and booster stations, diminishing the company's ability to move water around the island or to refill its more than 160 water tanks.
The board has six generators that can be deployed to pump stations in the event of a major power failure. The generators would be sent to the areas most affected by the storm, Shin said.
"We're at a bit of an advantage because often we have to mobilize crews on an emergency basis because of our main breaks, so mobilizing crews at a moment's notice is something that we practice all the time," she said. "We have backup generators and we would make sure that we fill our reservoirs to maximum capacity (before the storm). But if our pumps stop working, we can't refill the reservoirs."
The system is well positioned to handle a storm, Shin said. A secondary concern is water main breaks, especially in coastal areas vulnerable to high surf and storm surges.
O'ahu's reservoirs are constructed from floor to ceiling, with reinforced concrete and are built "into the mountain side."
Also, unlike other natural disasters, a hurricane can provide as much as two days notice, giving the water board ample time to prepare.
"Typically, we have enough time to fill up the reservoirs, make sure all the generators get to the right places and make sure they're filled up with diesel," Shin said. "We'd make sure of that at least 48 hours before a hurricane hit."
Most of the telephone lines in O'ahu's residential neighborhoods are carried on multi-use utility poles made of wood. A Katrina-like storm would cause "significant" outages, said Dan Smith, a spokesman for Hawaiian Telcom.
"We know certainly from Iniki that it (outages) would be significant. We do know that neighborhoods would be affected. Given the power of a hurricane, possibly many neighborhoods would be out of service," he said.
Hawaiian Telcom's priority in a disaster situation is to restore service to emergency services, civil defense, and first responders.
"Individual residential customers would be a longer project," said Smith.
Hawaiian Telcom has 700,000 telephone lines, including business lines and homes with multiple lines. The company has 1,604 miles of fiber-optic cable in the state, 435 miles of which are buried, while 890 miles are above ground and 279 miles are in the deep sea.
It also has 11,128 miles of copper lines, mostly in residential neighborhoods.
Part of the company's recovery plan includes the use of mobile phone banks where residents could use phones to make contact with loved ones. HECO urges customers to use working networks as little as possible after an emergency to ease the strain on the system.
"You certainly see what Katrina did to New Orleans and we know what Iniki did to Kaua'i," said Smith. "The trick would be restoring service as soon as possible."
More than 1,600 telephone poles were knocked down during Iniki, Smith said. Additionally nine switching stations and two microwave towers, the nerve center of Kaua'i's telephone service, were rendered useless. The first communication made with the island after the storm came from licensed amateur radio, he said.
"Today, there is an extensive amount of underground fiber optic cable, most interoffice lines are fiberoptic," he said. "Facilities have been reinforced to withstand water penetration and high winds. It's foolish to tempt fate and say they could never be compromised but we've done everything we can to make sure the switching centers can withstand strong winds."
Since Iniki hit in 1992, cellular telephones have become a cornerstone of communication between people all over the world.
In many households, particularly those of young, working professionals, cell phones have supplanted land lines as the primary form of telephone communication.
Cell phone provider Verizon spent more than $30 million on network improvements in the state last year, said Hal Navarre, operations director for Verizon Hawaii, and the network nerve center has its own backup generator and enough fuel to operate for a week.
He said the company's equipment is generally located on high ground and in fortified buildings that are designed to withstand extreme elements. Cell signal towers are usually short, compact structures built to withstand hurricane-force winds, he said.
Navarre declined to say how many cell phone towers Verizon has scattered throughout the state and to give the locations of critical switching stations and other infrastructure, saying the information is proprietary.
"We basically have an A and a B system so if part of the site fails, the other part of the site will take over," he said. "We started restoring service after Katrina within a day."
One hint: Navarre said customers should use text messaging after a hurricane so that the network is not overloaded.
The company has more than 200,000 hours of real disaster response activity to draw from, Navarre said, and in Hawai'i the company has a stable of supplies that include mobile cell phone towers that run off generators that can be deployed to help maintain the network.
The major challenge comes if the land-line system completely fails, preventing most of the cell phone calls from being delivered.
"A tower hitting the ground is not normally an issue," said Navarre. "If the land-line system goes down, that is an issue for us. The bulk of our customer calls can't be delivered."
Reach Peter Boylan at email@example.com.