To prepare for a future with stronger hurricanes, Hawaii can learn from others — and itself

Published: Dec. 16, 2019 at 11:34 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii should look to other states, other countries and its own past to gain insight on how to harden its buildings and homes and bolster the resiliency of its infrastructure in the face of a warming future that promises more frequent and stronger hurricanes, experts say.

The discussion comes as Hawaii emergency management officials acknowledge that they must take action now to prepare for the likelihood of an intense hurricane making landfall.

Just last year, Hawaii was facing the real possibility of a direct hit from a Category 4 or 5 storm in Hurricane Lane. Luckily, Lane weakened into a tropical storm and stayed south of the islands, but it served as a wake-up call for the state and underscored some its key infrastructure vulnerabilities.

The state’s own estimates predict a major hurricane like Lane would all but cripple the islands with a direct hit, causing a total capital economic loss of $116 billion, displacing roughly 240,000 households, generating 8 million tons of debris and resulting in power outages that could take weeks to restore.

And scientists say a warming planet will mean more Hurricane Lanes taking aim at the islands.

"For a storm of that impact, the worst probable disaster, Hawaii is not well prepared for that particular hurricane, and we need to address improving our preparation and our infrastructure and deal with that," said Tom Travis, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

“We don’t have enough capital reserve, we don’t have enough sheltering, we don’t have enough temporary housing, almost in no measure would we have had enough of what we needed to deal if Hurricane Lane hit as a Category 4 hurricane.”

Despite the gaps, scientists and experts also say there are things the state, counties ― and residents ― could be doing now to harden structures and ensure vital elements of Hawaii infrastructure are more resilient.

  • They say government agencies need to work harder to address the most glaring needs, from fast-tracking infrastructure improvements to ensuring new construction meets stricter guidelines to retrofitting existing emergency shelters so they can withstand stronger storms. Authorities say they’re working on some short- and mid-term solutions, and hope to seek new funding soon.
  • Residents are being urged to do what they can to harden their homes, including by installing relatively inexpensive hurricane clips or thinking about resiliency during home renovations. Emergency officials stress that residents are their own best resources in the event of a disaster, and they expect the vast majority of people will shelter in place during a big storm.
  • And companies ― from offices to hotels ― are being asked to do their part, too, including by considering how workplaces could double as shelters in the event of a major hurricane.

Of course, all those efforts are easier said than done, but experts warn the cost of inaction could be in the billions.

“We all know with climate change, it’s not if, it’s when this happens,” said Sam Lemmo, administrator of the state Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands. “And it might happen repeatedly in the future because of our changing climate.”

In recent years, several hurricanes and tropical storms skirted the islands, dumping heavy rain and bringing powerful winds. But those events were nothing compared to a major storm making landfall.

"We've seen the effects of passing storms, mainly from a little bit of rain perhaps, perhaps a little bit of wave activity. But that's nothing like taking a direct hit from a hurricane, which comes with massive storm surge, high wind, and potentially catastrophic rain bomb events," Lemmo said.

“We’re not prepared along the shoreline. We’re not prepared along any shoreline for these types of events. We’re not prepared for the wind because a lot of the buildings are not resilient to wind.”

Experts say Hawaii is simply not resilient enough, especially when it comes to Hawaii’s aging infrastructure and housing inventory.

Victoria Keener, a climate change research fellow for the East-West Center, said it’s clear the state’s infrastructure is not strong enough to withstand the impacts of major natural disasters.

"I think some of it is resources, but some of it is the kinds of disasters we've experienced. We've been very lucky," Keener said. "Just the fact that we've been very lucky, we haven't felt that push to upgrade our systems."

She points to the 2019 infrastructure report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave Hawaii a D-plus grade. Stormwater received the lowest grade: a D-minus. The engineers referred to the major flooding Hawaii saw during hurricanes and amid high tides and sea level rise.

“The majority of Hawaii’s infrastructure has been operating beyond its useful life, and some components of systems are over 100 years old,” the society said, in its report.

Experts warn that if Hawaii’s infrastructure and public buildings aren’t resilient enough now that could lead to dire consequences for the state as climate change becomes more pronounced.

With warmer sea surface temperatures, due to a warming planet, tropical cyclones will become stronger and more frequent, scientists predict. And warmer ocean temperatures could also change hurricane tracks, making Hawaii more vulnerable to increased storm activity in the future.

[Read more: As state prepares for hurricane season, past flood disasters offer glimpse of warmer future]

[Read more: What can you do to live more sustainably? An online dashboard offers answers]

Allen Clark, professional development program director for the East-West Center, said when it comes to development and infrastructure, planning for “one-off” disasters is hard enough. But add to the mix the effects of climate change and things get even more complicated.

“What that really means is the whole framework which this is taking place is changing,” Clark said. “So the combination of these two big issues — the complexity of the disasters and the reinforcing of climate change and these things — make disaster management extraordinarily challenging.”

One office that’s prioritizing climate change in urban planning is the city’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, formed in 2016 with overwhelming approval by voters.

Josh Stanbro, the office's chief resilience officer, said Oahu's current infrastructure "is built for an era that is bygone."

"All of this was built and designed for a period of climate that we are leaving," Stanbro said. "Climate change is literally pushing us into an era that is going to be bigger rains, there's going to be bigger storms, there's going to be things that we've never seen in the past."

Stanbro said the office is carefully looking at design guidelines to make sure public buildings, roads, bridges and other infrastructure are as resilient as possible in the face of powerful winds and flooding from hurricanes.

But there’s another important consideration, and it could be the most vital: Private homes.

“The homes that we live in also have to have the newest strongest building codes that are available to us to make sure we have a roof over our head when hurricanes come,” Stanbro said.

(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

While most agree that progress is being made in terms of developing resiliency in the face of climate change, there's still a tremendous amount of work to be done.

Keener, of the East-West Center, said Hawaii would be smart to look elsewhere for inspiration on bolstering resiliency and preparing for stronger storms.

“One of the best ways to go about upgrading the resiliency of the infrastructure here is to look to places that have experienced hazards that are similar to the ones we’ve already experienced or might experience more of in the future as the climate continues to change, like flooding, like earthquakes, like tsunamis, like hurricanes,” she said.

She points to places like Japan as an example.

Despite the devastation caused by Typhoon Hagibis — which swept through parts of the country in October, dumping record-breaking rain and causing more than 80 deaths — experts say Japan is among the world’s most resilient countries, investing billions of dollars in developing first-class infrastructure.

Clark, of the East-West Center, said it’s because Japan has “learned the hard way” after experiencing more than its fair share of extreme weather and natural disasters — from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami to numerous typhoons every season.

"The Japanese are focused on resilience through redundancy," Clark said, specifying Japan's power system that's already built strong to begin with but is engineered in such a way that if something fails, another system kicks in and takes over.

"So you really have to plan for disasters. Not just plan what you're going to do when it happens, you gotta plan to make sure that it doesn't happen. Or if it does happen, it doesn't have a large negative impact."

But Lemmo, of the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, believes Japan-scale infrastructure is too lofty a goal.

“The things they’re doing are sort of like a scale way beyond anything that we can accomplish,” he said.

Instead, he said, Hawaii should focus on more practical examples, citing Miami, Charleston, New Orleans, the Netherlands and Venice — all places that have been developing systems to deal with flooding and sea level rise.

"We look at what other people do and we see if we can adopt any of it here locally," Lemmo said. "But each place has its unique geography, geology, which then requires us to think of it in a way that works for us. Not everything is directly transferable from one place to another."

Keener said we can also learn from places that were hit hard from natural disasters, like Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in 2017 and destroyed most of the island’s aging infrastructure. It took more than 18 months for power to be restored to most of the island — and even today, parts of the U.S. territory are still recovering.

Like Hawaii, Puerto Rico is an island community that relies on ports to obtain supplies. After Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico opened its port within 24 hours but failed to transport the supplies across the island because most of the roads were impassable, Keener said.

“So you can look at something like Puerto Rico as an example of impacts building on impacts and things they weren’t necessarily prepared for, so they planned for reopening the port, but not how to get things places once it got there,” Keener said. “It’s just a matter of thinking of as many things as you can to prepare ahead of time and increase the resiliency in the systems.”

Stanbro, the city’s chief climate change officer, agrees.

“We hope that people look at our sister islands out there and say ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’ and really try to do our best to make us as resilient as possible and best in retrofit and best in new infrastructure so when a hurricane comes — and it will come — that we’re as safe as possible and we’re able to be resilient in the face of it.”

Ultimately, he said, there’s nothing like looking in your own backyard, where the state has a “local example” of what it means to learn from disasters: the two tsunamis that Hilo saw in 1946 and 1960.

Even after the first tsunami struck Hilo, people still continued building in the same area again.

It finally took the second tsunami for people to realize it wasn’t making sense to rebuild in such a vulnerable area. Instead, the community transformed the space into public parks.

“It’s really up to us to learn from examples of the past and make sure we are building stronger and smarter afterwards in the right places,” Stanbro said.

On Sept. 11, 1992, Hurricane Iniki struck Kauai as a Category 4 storm, causing over $1 billion in damage and six deaths. The storm’s 140 mph winds — with gusts as high as 175 mph — destroyed 1,400 homes and severely damaged over 5,000, uprooted trees and knocked out power and telephone service.

[Read more: It was the calm before the storm of Hurricane Iniki — and Kauai didn’t know what it was in for]

Another blow to Kauai: Hurricane Iwa, which passed just west of the island as a Category 1 storm in 1982, caused up to $250 million in damage and one death.

The devastation from those storms prompted significant upgrades to building standards across the state. After Iniki hit, stricter building codes were enacted statewide, requiring all new homes to have hurricane clips — steel ties between the roof and the wall designed to resist powerful winds.

“When Iniki struck, basically it showed that most of the housing was inadequate, so following Iniki, the building standards for housing and other things have increased dramatically,” said Clark, of the East-West Center. “That’s a classic example of developing resilience.”

[Read more: After catastrophic Hurricane Iniki, Kauai built stronger and smarter]

Dennis Hwang, coastal hazard mitigation specialist for the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant College Program, is one of the authors of the “Homeowner’s Handbook to Prepare for Natural Disasters." It provides a wealth of information to help residents prepare for natural disasters, including hurricanes, flooding, tsunamis and earthquakes.

The newest edition released this year now includes an entire section focused on threats from climate change.

Hwang, who helps homeowners strengthen their houses for natural disasters — like installing hurricane clips, said a majority of Oahu residents don’t understand the risk of a powerful hurricane (like Iniki) because the island hasn’t faced a direct hit yet.

In Hawaii, the homes in many older neighborhoods are wooden, single-wall construction and wouldn’t be able to withstand powerful winds.

“Iniki, if it turned north, six hours earlier, it would’ve hit Oahu instead of Kauai. And instead of 6,000 or 7,000 houses being damaged or destroyed, it would’ve been 50,000 houses damaged or destroyed,” Hwang said.

It’s the same situation with Hurricane Lane in 2018, Hwang added.

"We were very fortunate it dissipated very quickly and just made a left turn and moved to the west and didn't impact us at all," he said. "But it could've been very catastrophic. People don't realize that risk."

[Read more: Hurricane Lane brings rain, rain ... and more rain]

Hwang said he's not only worried that just one hurricane could hit Oahu, but climate change could exacerbate the situation.

"It just takes one hurricane," Hwang said. "So even something like Iwa or Iniki hitting Oahu could be disastrous. But the number flying around us in the next five, 10, 20 years is like even likely to be greater, and it's really something people need to consider and prepare for."

According to the state’s 2018 all-hazards preparedness improvement action plan and report, Hawaii doesn’t have enough shelters “to meet the estimated demand of the population and these shelters have no supplies.”

That report said that while Hawaii has a population of about 1.4 million people, there were only 277,376 available shelter spaces.

“We can say that there are too few shelters that are hurricane proof for this category 4 hurricane that I hypothesized,” said Travis, administrator of HI-EMA. “We don’t have shelters for that.”

Is your home strong enough to shelter in place during a hurricane?
Is your home strong enough to shelter in place during a hurricane?(University of Hawaii College Sea Grant Program)

According to HI-EMA, most evacuation shelters have not been designed or hardened for winds greater than a severe tropical storm but are a safer option than homes in flood-prone areas.

Travis said he’s working on legislative bills that would provide funds to retrofit the current shelters at schools as well as a bill that would encourage sheltering at workplaces. The ultimate goal, though, is to strengthen homes so that most of the population is able to shelter in place.

That would mean each county would need to figure out how to improve building codes, Travis said.

“I think we have to accept that most of Hawaii’s population will shelter in place,” Travis said. “Our policy is that you should consider sheltering in place unless you’re in a flood zone or inundation zone. In which case, you probably should evacuate to one of the state shelters, or one of the county shelters.”

To come: Part II of this report will take a deeper dive into the solutions available to Hawaii government, companies and residents for bolstering resiliency and preparing for the next big storm.

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