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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tsunami threat cost Hawaii County $274,067; 873 workers were mobilized


By Jason Armstrong
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Spectators stood uphill above Hilo Bay in Hilo to observe a tsunami that was expected to hit the state. Police enforced a mandatory evacuation in the inundation zones along the bay. Yesterday, Hawaii County said it cost $274,067 to prepare for the tsunami threat.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii County's cost to prepare for the recent tsunami threat: $274,067.

Surviving the scare without injury or property loss: priceless.

That's the response by Mayor Billy Kenoi's administration, which Tuesday released an expense report for having mobilized about a third of the county's work force to help with the anticipated Feb. 27 natural disaster.

"Any dollar we spend on disaster preparedness is a dollar well spent," Kenoi said Monday, a day before the county's price tag was calculated.

By comparison, the tsunami cost the City and County of Honolulu $330,000 in extra overtime and lost revenue from government facilities closed for the day.

Kenoi emphasized that the event was not a drill and that every indication showed a potentially damaging tsunami heading toward Hawaii.

The wave arrived as predicted, but lacked the height and power of the one that wiped out Hilo in 1960.

"We mobilized every county personnel to make sure we evacuated all coastal areas," Kenoi said of the county's coordinated response.

In all, 873 employees from 16 departments responded no one from the Liquor Control Department was needed to the tsunami threat, according to a report Deputy Finance Director Deanna Sako provided.

The price tag was mostly to pay the employees 1.5 times their normal hourly wage to work on their off day, along with meals and the rental of a private helicopter, she said.

However, it excludes refunds provided to campers and people who had rented pavilions in county parks that were closed because of the feared waves, she said.

The largest bill came from the Police Department, which needed $106,103 to pay overtime wages to 324 employees, according to Sako's report.

The county can't seek federal reimbursement because no actual disaster occurred, Sako said.

A couple of departments have overtime budgets to cover the cost of responding to natural disasters, she said, noting the $4.8 million in the county's disaster and emergency fund will be used to pay any shortages or for disasters that happen before the fiscal year ends June 30.

"It's for emergencies like this unplanned," Sako said of the special fund created a few years ago.

The county's tsunami expense did not include the National Guard helicopter used by Kenoi, eight other county employees and a Tribune-Herald photographer, said Hunter Bishop, executive assistant to Kenoi.

The Department of Parks and Recreation activated its Recreation Division, which had evacuation centers ready by 2:30 a.m., and mobilized its Parks Maintenance Division a half hour later to secure park sites and help to open evacuation routes, Deputy Director Clayton Honma said.

"Every single person we called out all made it out," Honma said.

The department's Elderly Activities Division also was called in to transport needy seniors away from coastal areas susceptible to possible damage, he said.

"It was an excellent exercise," Honma said of what turned out to be an unplanned training mission. "Next time coming on, we'll be even better for it."

Hilo Medical Center began mobilizing its staff by 2:30 a.m., hospital spokeswoman Elena Cabatu said in a written statement.

The hospital's command center was opened at 5:45 a.m. and didn't close until the all-clear announcement was made at 2 p.m., she said.

Preparations included assessing the hospital's ability to feed patients and its supply of medicine, rescheduling surgeries, and activating emergency infrastructure so services could continue if electricity was lost, she said.

"Hilo Medical Center has an effective process and plan for responding to emergency situations like the recent tsunami event," Howard N. Ainsley, East Hawaii Regional CEO of Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which runs the hospital, said in the same statement. "It was very evident that our staff dedicates countless hours of training to ready the hospital on a moment's notice."

The tsunami threat occurred on a Saturday, resulting in most downtown Hilo stores closing on a typically busy day.

Asked to estimate the cost to businesses, Mary Begier, Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce president, said she surveyed seven store owners or their representatives.

"I've had that conversation with a few people, and so far the answer that everyone has come up with or suggested is that the cost, no matter what it was, doesn't matter compared to that of human life," Begier said.

Owners praised the county's response, but one complained that the warning sirens were sounded too frequently, making the tsunami threat scarier than necessary, she said.

"I must say part of the story should include the fact that everyone is just extremely grateful and recognizes how very, very lucky we were and we are, and hope to God that we continue to be as lucky," Begier added.