by Andrew Walden (Orig published August 14, 2007)
With 125 mph hurricane Flossie still on track to pass August 13 just south of the Big Island, Hawaii County Civil Defense is opening ten emergency shelters in schools and other public buildings island wide. In Kau, likely to be hardest hit, the only available shelter is at Kau High School in Pahala.
Red Cross volunteers are working to get a second shelter opened up at an area church, but as yet have no firm commitment. Hawaii County Red Cross director Youlia Kalima explains the two buildings are the only hardened structures in the entire rural district of 5,000 people. The next nearest shelters would be at Konawaena HS in South Kona or Keaau HS in Puna—dozens of miles away.
Kau is not the only area suffering from lack of emergency shelters. Speaking to Hawai`i Free Press, Jon Cummings and Ken Gilbert of the State Civil Defense office indicate O`ahu has 245,708 shelter spaces classed ‘usable with some risk’. Of these, only 73,974 are class 1—‘usable now’—for a population of 900,000 plus visitors. The 171,734 shelter spaces not ‘usable now’ would require plywood window boarding in order to make them safer in hurricane-force winds.
These numbers are below what Cummings cites as the benchmark goal of space available for 300,000 -- 1/3 of the resident population. Rather than increasing and upgrading evacuation spaces to meet the shortfall, there are actually 7,000 fewer spaces than 2005. Most of the missing spaces were classes, ‘usable now.’ One worker in the Honolulu civil defense office attributes this to schools undergoing renovation. Cummings says the discrepancy may be due to changes in the way shelter spaces are counted.
Of some concern is the use of the Hawaii Convention Center as an evacuation center for 30,000 Waikiki residents and visitors. It is located just a few feet above sea level adjacent to the Ala Wai Canal. Cummings points out that it is located beyond the known tsunami inundation zone, but without records of a direct hurricane hit on Oahu it is difficult to know how storm surge would affect the area. In 1992 as Iniki hit Kauai, large waves and storm surge reached into the second floor of beachside apartments and homes on Oahu’s Waianae coast.
Hurricanes are unpredictable, often making wild swings in their course. Flossie is following a track very similar to that of many hurricanes—including Iniki--passing south of the Big Island. Iniki then suddenly turned right threatening Oahu before killing six people, destroying or severely damaging over 6,500 homes, and causing over $1.8 billion in damage in a direct hit on Kauai. While the sister islands can rely on substantial recovery resources from the state’s population center on Oahu, it is difficult to imagine sufficient help reaching Oahu from the sister islands.
In calls to all four county civil defense departments, only Honolulu was able to account for its shelter space totals. In 2005 Hawaii county had 32,000 shelter spaces available, just over half of its goal. Many of these spaces are in buildings with glass jalousies likely to be shattered by flying debris or high velocity winds. Unable to drive hundreds of miles inland away from a storm as mainland residents do, residents of Hawaii County’s many lightly constructed homes would depend on these shelters in the event of a direct hit. As Neil Gyotoku of the Planning and Operations for Hawaii Civil Defense asks, “We are on an island. Where can we go?”
During the 2005 hurricane season, articles appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser, Hawai'i Free Press and on Hawaii Reporter.com calling attention to the lack of shelters classed ‘usable now’. The improvements necessary to upgrade school buildings are relatively simple and inexpensive: hardened entrance doors, wooden jalousies to replace glass, and metal grilles to protect the wooden jalousies from high velocity flying debris thrown through the air by hurricane-force winds.
Why have these improvements not been made? Part of the problem is that the agency responsible for upgrading the buildings—the State Department of Education (DOE) does not bear responsibility for operating the shelters. DOE is slowly working through the system making hurricane shelter improvements along with improvements related to requirements of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After 17 years the DOE still does not meet ADA requirements. And the number of hurricane shelters on Oahu is shrinking, not growing.
Others point to a cozy relationship between the DOE maintenance programs and politically connected contractors. By allowing building maintenance to lag, more lucrative renovation, reconstruction or demolition and replacement jobs are created. These are the rewards for contractors’ political contributions and family ties to Democrat legislators. The risk? Hawaii residents’ lives.
The Kohala Cyclone clobbered the northern part of the Big Island and all of Maui on August 9, 1871. Three years later a cyclone hit Honolulu destroying or damaging 73 homes and dumping 20 inches of rain. It appears that in spite of many near misses and glancing blows, Oahu, the Big Island and Maui have avoided direct hits by a full hurricane since the 1870s.
Prior to 1969 when the first geostationary weather satellites provided coverage to the central Pacific, Hawaii hurricane records are vague. Some storms may have gone unnoticed or unrecorded in the vast ocean. Others may have not been recognized as full hurricanes when they made landfall. Kauai’s luck ran out with 1982 Hurricane Iwa-- thirteen years after full weather coverage was established. A decade later came Iniki. Almost every year one or more storms pass close by. Of the lack of hardened shelters, says one Red Cross volunteer: “We are just rolling the marbles.”