honoluluadvertiser.com

Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 19, 2006

Problems impede Isles' preparations for disasters

 •  Farmers hoping to save reservoir

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i As civil defense and other Hawai'i leaders study various scenarios for disasters, daunting problems with the response plans become apparent.

There aren't nearly enough doctors on the Neighbor Islands to cope with mass casualties. Evacuation routes on O'ahu and Maui would quickly be jammed in an emergency. There aren't enough hardened shelters where people could take cover in a hurricane.

Too few homes have been retrofitted to help them withstand hurricane-force winds. Too many homes are being built along volcanic rift zones.

Hawai'i is both isolated and vulnerable to an array of natural disasters, and as the dam failure on Kaua'i demonstrated last week, simply identifying threats doesn't mean the problem is solved.

Long before the earthen dam burst on Kaua'i and killed seven people, experts had warned a number of dams in the state had deficiencies that could cause them to fail. As with the levees that failed in New Orleans, the experts knew what could happen, and newspaper stories sketched out the threat for the public.

Then the Kaloko dam actually burst, prompting some to wonder if Hawai'i is too complacent about the threats it faces.

"I call it the Traffic Light Syndrome," said Larry Geller, president of Kokua Council, a nonprofit senior citizens advocacy organization. "We don't put in a traffic light until pedestrians are killed."

Geller sat through two days of hearings on disaster preparedness at the state Legislature last year after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. He wanted to draw lawmakers' attention to issues such as the difficulties of evacuating disabled people in an emergency, and the shortage of doctors on the Neighbor Islands.

"We're doing nothing about it," he said of the doctor shortage. "The consequence is very clear. When the hurricane comes or when the tsunami comes or the earthquake, we will not have doctors to care for people, so people will die, people we could have saved. There will be avoidable deaths.

"We've got to move into an action phase where we see a solution by a certain date."

PHYSICIAN SHORTAGE

Experts don't agree that nothing is being done about the Neighbor Island physician shortage. State Civil Defense Vice Director Ed Teixeira said plans are in place for emergency interisland relief in a disaster.

Rich Meiers, president and chief executive officer of the Healthcare Association of Hawai'i, said the association would organize the kind of relief effort it delivered to Kaua'i after Hurricane Iniki in 1992. After the hurricane, medical supplies and doctors were quickly shuttled to Kaua'i to relieve overburdened physicians there.

Meiers also said the Healthcare Association is developing a statewide trauma plan that is expected to recommend creating trauma centers at hospitals on Maui and the Big Island.

But experts do agree gaps in disaster response plans don't always get the attention they deserve until after something goes wrong.

"The complacency occurs when nothing happens for a while," said George Curtis, an expert in tsunamis and tsunami adviser to the Big Island.

Then, a disaster such as a tsunami occurs and the available technology and resources are devoted to coping with that particular crisis, and guarding against the next tsunami.

For better or worse, that diverts public attention and resources away from other hazards that are just as real. A recent example cited by Curtis and others was the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which triggered renewed federal interest and funding for tsunami-related preparation and research.

But Walter Dudley, oceanography professor at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and education adviser to state Civil Defense, said after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last year some of the federal money earmarked for tsunami-related efforts was held up.

"I've heard the Civil Defense people refer to this, the attention goes to the latest and greatest disaster," Curtis said.

LOGISTICAL PROBLEMS

This pattern is troubling to people like Kealakehe Intermediate School teacher Bill Harlan, who has been asking public officials pointed questions about another disaster scientists agree will come someday: the eruption of the dormant Hualalai volcano above Kailua, Kona.

Harlan teaches sixth-grade world history at a school with 1,000 students that was built on the slopes of Hualalai, which last erupted in 1801. Kona's roads are clogged with traffic each day as it is, and Harlan said an evacuation in an eruption would present enormous logistical problems.

Harlan believes most of his fellow Kona residents don't have a clue that scientists expect Hualalai to erupt again, which he said points to an urgent need to educate the community about the threat and the plans to address it.

"When you tell most people that it's dangerous, it could erupt, they stare at you like you're crazy. And these are locals," Harlan said. "None of my friends know about Hualalai, and they're not stupid people. They haven't been taught."

Dudley, a tsunami expert and chair of the scientific advisory council of the Pacific Tsunami Museum, said he also sees gaps in disaster preparedness.

"I think one area where we're woefully ill-prepared is in educating our visitors about what to do," he said.

Dudley said Civil Defense workers are frustrated and overworked, and don't have the resources to prepare for all of the risks.

"I think the higher levels of our state and for that matter federal government could do more to support the guys who are really trying to do this job," he said.

State Civil Defense officials are seeking $4 million from lawmakers this year to continue hardening state facilities to make them effective as hurricane shelters, reducing the shortage of shelter space.

Gov. Linda Lingle's administration has requested $15 million more to purchase stockpiles of anti-viral drugs and data management systems to track the effectiveness of the drugs in the event of a flu pandemic.

After Kaloko burst, House Public Safety and Military Affairs chairman Ken Ito introduced a resolution calling for a study to assess the safety of all privately owned dams in the state, and to set out an action plan for making any necessary repairs.

House Judiciary chairwoman Sylvia Luke, D-26th (Punchbowl, Pacific Hts., Nu'uanu Valley), said she urged Ito to introduce the resolution after the Kaloko failure triggered alarm among her constituents who live below Nu'uanu reservoir and Nu'uanu dam.

"Unfortunately, it's things like this and tragic events that get the state's attention, and it shouldn't be like that," she said.

DAM DEFICIENCIES

As first reported in The Advertiser in October, the American Society of Civil Engineers has assessed 22 other Hawai'i dams rated as high- or medium-hazard and determined they have deficiencies that raise safety concerns. Kaloko dam was rated as a "low-hazard" because it sits above a lightly populated area.

At the federal level, U.S. Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye on Thursday introduced a bill to improve dam safety nationwide by establishing a federal program to help states repair publicly owned dams that might pose a threat.

Hawai'i Reps. Ed Case and Neil Abercrombie had already joined another lawmaker in introducing a similar bill in the U.S. House on March 3.

Teixeira, the vice director of state Civil Defense, sees a risk of complacency in Hawai'i because it has been so many years since the state was jolted by a major disaster such as a destructive earthquake or tsunami. Even Hurricane Iniki was more than 13 years ago, and Teixeira believes the state has been "very, very lucky."

At the same time, there is economic pressure to allow building in potentially dangerous areas such as the tsunami inundation zone, or places that will be threatened by high surf, or alongside streams that are prone to flooding, he said.

While Civil Defense authorities do not control those decisions they are expected to cope with the disasters that may result.

People who live in hazard-prone areas need to understand the risks because "these are natural processes, and the only reason they're disasters is because people happen to be there, and Mother Nature will keep doing this," Dudley said.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.