University of Hawaii to open natural-disaster training center
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
While six federal training centers have opened around the country to address manmade problems, such as terrorism, Hawai'i will unveil its version Tuesday with the focus solely on natural disasters.
The University of Hawai'i Center for Excellence for Natural Disaster Preparedness Training — based out of the Manoa Innovation Center — joins the other national training centers created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But the Hawai'i center is the only one formed specifically to do research and develop training to deal with hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural problems facing the Islands, the West Coast and areas throughout the Pacific Rim.
Eventually, the UH center will expand to include training for other parts of the country and U.S. territories, said Karl Kim, a UH professor of urban planning who also now runs the center as its executive director.
"We are one of the most isolated places in the world and we need to develop strategies to increase our resilience," Kim said. "But many rural communities in the middle of the continent are like islands, too, and it may be days before outside resources can reach them after catastrophic events. As a national training center, we need to take on those responsibilities for the whole nation."
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai'i, pushed for creation of the UH center in 2007 after the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up National Domestic Preparedness sites in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Baton Rouge, La., College Station, Texas, Pueblo, Colo., and Alabama. Those focus on preventing and responding to such scenarios as explosive and incendiary attacks, chemical and biological terrorist attacks, and radiological and nuclear attacks.
After the Senate approved $5 million for the UH center in July as part of the 2010 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill, Inouye said its mission is to deliver disaster preparedness training to governmental, private and nonprofit groups.
Inouye cited 1992's Hurricane Iniki at the time.
"Given our remote location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawai'i is uniquely vulnerable to the elements and natural disasters like tropical storms, hurricanes and tsunamis," he said.
While the other centers were formed to focus on issues such as "terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and rail and pipeline technology," Kim said, "the UH center was added after the Indian Ocean tsunami, after (Hurricane) Katrina, after the September tsunami in Sämoa and after wildfires in California, flooding in the Midwest and many other catastrophic natural disasters.
"It all points to the need for more attention to natural disasters."
About 100 people from the Neighbor Islands, Guam, Saipan, Sämoa, California, the Pacific Northwest and the other national training sites will be in Honolulu for Tuesday's opening ceremonies and for training sessions, including demonstration of a potential tsunami-preparedness course.
They'll spend a week attending sessions at the East-West Center (at the edge of the UH-Mänoa campus) and the Sheraton Waikiki. And some of them will take a day trip to the Big Island tomorrow to visit Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park and see areas of the island that have been hit by tsunamis.
FEMA takes 18 months to two years to approve training courses, but the UH center is trying to get its tsunami course and others fast-tracked for approval, Kim said.
"Right now we're working on courses on tsunamis and coastal community resiliency and we want to do something on volcanoes and hurricanes," Kim said. "Ultimately we could have hundreds of courses. There's no shortage of demand."
The center will bring together experts from the UH, county and state civil defense and federal agencies to develop courses and training methods.
"We're expected to respond to a range of hazards in a short time," said Bruce Houghton, a UH professor of geology and geophysics who is also the state's volcanologist and the new science director of the UH Center for Excellence for Natural Disaster Preparedness Training.
"Here in Hawai'i," he said, "we have a diverse portfolio of problems we have to deal with every year. We also have the expertise."