Few shelters from the storm
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
A year after Hurricane Katrina underscored the need for shelter space, Hawai'i Civil Defense officials are still a decade or more away and millions of dollars short of what they need to cope with the aftermath of a major disaster.
Perhaps more disheartening to the seniors group that heard the sobering assessment yesterday: Since the disaster, none of the state's 219 shelters has moved any closer to meeting the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities who would require special care.
"We are definitely not there yet," said Ed Teixeira, state Civil Defense vice director.
But Teixeira said the Legislature this year authorized more than $8 million for disaster-related projects, including additional money for warning sirens, an emergency supplies cache and $4 million to retrofit 32 shelters as the state works to reduce its 124,000-space shortfall.
And since Katrina, the state has identified 30 public schools it would like to use for people with special needs, he said.
"I am looking at a decade of work in just the shelters alone — and it could be more than that," Teixeira said. "Every new school we build and every public building we put up, we gotta ask ourselves: Can that serve as a shelter for us?"
The shortage of shelters means the state shouldn't rely on them just yet, he said. It also means his staff is even taking a creative approach to solving the problem in the short term.
"We have a team of volunteers who are going out and looking at pre-World War II bunkers on O'ahu," Teixeira said. "And we are just astounded at what we are finding. Some, I don't know if I want to send people to them, but there are a lot of them."
Teixeira said the funding, aimed at a variety of things, is a critical first step.
Lawmakers gave Civil Defense officials $500,000 so they could have staff working at their Diamond Head headquarters around the clock, monitoring storms, tsunami warnings that could come in the middle of the night and earthquakes that would require warning the public quickly. The staff will begin its work next month, replacing a system in which on-call officials are brought in from home after the office closes at 8 p.m.
Also funded this year were $1 million in emergency supplies — none of which has been bought yet — that the state wants to stockpile. This could include generators, blankets, folding cots, bottled water, tarps and even folding wheelchairs.
An additional $2 million will be used to replace aging sirens in the statewide warning network, or add new ones in areas where they currently cannot be heard. Some of the sirens are 25 years old, Teixeira said.
Civil Defense authorities also received $250,000 to update tsunami inundation zone maps. The best maps currently available are printed in the telephone book, but they are based on outdated technology. Another $250,000 would go toward public awareness.
Danny Tengan, a former Red Cross worker in charge of the Civil Defense retrofit program, said the state is trying to add 14,000 shelter spaces at 32 schools, a process that will take several years and require an additional $6 million on top of the $4 million he received.
None of the work has begun yet, Tengan said, adding that "it's all in the design phase."
Tengan said the state's 124,000 shortfall is an estimate based on national statistics that predict that 35 percent of a given population will require shelter. If more than that showed up after a Hawai'i disaster, there would be severe problems, Tengan said.
Tengan said he has told care homes to look into ways to make their own facilities shelters rather than bringing their residents to a public one.
"Shelter in place will be the theme for years to come," he said. "Don't count on the government. We don't have enough to house them all. What if 50 percent evacuated? Or 60 percent? We're dead."
Tengan said he is attempting to merge that program with the one that aims to create shelter space for people with special needs. It's a process of allocating space — 10 square feet for the general public and 15 to 20 square feet for people who might come to a shelter with a special bed or a caregiver, he said.
"As we get more funds and more equipment, we will have more shelters for special needs," Tengan said.
But the state must still figure out which of its potential special needs shelters would draw large populations.
The state estimates there are 199,000 disabled and elderly in Hawai'i, Teixeira said.
"But where they are, that's the challenge we have," Teixeira said.
Federal medical privacy regulations have made it difficult for the state to create a database it could use in a disaster, he said.
"They would need to come forward and say 'I want you to know where I am,' " Teixeira said.
Larry Geller, president of the Kokua Council, said he was troubled by the lack of a timeline and said state Civil Defense officials need to move more quickly.
"I think we have a lot of work and we need to keep the pressure on our legislators and our state and county people who are in charge of this to move some of these projects along," he said. "You can't just say you need shelters. You need a timeline and you need to know who is responsible."
Reach Mike Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.