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As two hurricane-strength storms approach Oahu, the city has no comprehensive emergency plan in place for the densely-populated, low-lying area of Waikiki, which could experience storm surges, high winds, flooding and flying debris, according to John Cummings, a spokesman for Honolulu’s Department of Emergency Management.
And a statewide plan for a major hurricane only includes Oahu, not the neighbor islands, which have been hardest hit by hurricanes and tropical storms in past decades.
As of Wednesday evening, Hurricane Iselle was approaching the Big Island with maximum sustained winds of 90 miles per hour, making it a Category 1 hurricane. The Big Island could begin experiencing high winds Thursday afternoon and hurricane conditions later in the evening.
Maui, Kauai and Oahu could experience tropical storm conditions starting Thursday night.
While there is no official plan in place for Waikiki, Cummings said that there are general guidelines that residents and tourists should follow.
Since there’s a major shortage of shelter space, people in Waikiki high-rises should evacuate “vertically.” This means that if you are in a building with six floors or more, you should move to the third floor or higher to avoid high water.
However, if you are in an inundation zone and in a building constructed before 1955, it could be subject to flooding and likely wasn’t built to withstand Category 1 winds.
Federal and city officials said that to their knowledge there is no available list of buildings in Waikiki that were built before 1955, when Oahu building codes were revised to withstand high winds.
Furthermore, Cummings said that windows haven’t been subject to the same building standards.
State and city officials are taking precautions in case the storms bring major damage to the islands. Hurricane Julio, which trails Hurricane Iselle, is currently a Category 1 hurricane, but could either weaken or strengthen.
While it appears that the Big Island is almost certainly on track to experience some effects from Hurricane Iselle, some scientists predict that islands like Oahu may only experience blustery weather, rain and possibly flooding.
The state’s major storm plan, entitled the Hawaii Catastrophic Hurricane Operations Plan, is a 22-page document produced in 2009 that describes what would happen if a Category 4 hurricane hit Oahu and provides a general framework for emergency response operations. The plan is also meant to apply to lower level threats, such as the hurricanes currently approaching the Hawaiian Islands.
The plan was a joint effort of Hawaii’s Civil Defense Division and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, commonly known as FEMA.
While the state plan only covers Oahu, Dennis McKeown, one of FEMA’s lead planners on the report, said the agency is working to update it to include the neighbor islands. The expanded plan could be in place as early as the beginning of 2015.
“The plan, even though it addresses Oahu, it is not limited to Oahu.” —Dennis McKeown, FEMA planner
But that will be after the end of this hurricane season, which scientists have warned could be particularly severe because of El Nino weather patterns.
McKeown stressed that the Oahu plan was adaptable to neighbor islands.
“The plan, even though it addresses Oahu, it is not limited to Oahu,” he said. “A key component is the use of Oahu as a logical hub,” from which air and marine shipments of supplies can be pushed out to the neighbor islands “in a hub and spoke fashion.”
McKeown said that neighbor island counties have also done storm analyses which can be used to address the current threats.
A spokesman for Civil Defense on the Big Island, which could be hit the hardest, didn’t immediately know if the island had an emergency storm plan in place.
Oahu has not sustained a direct hit from a hurricane in recorded history, dating back to the early 1800s, and at most has experienced weak tropical storms.
But if Oahu did get hit by a Category 4 or 5 storm, the state’s catastrophic plan paints a dire picture.
More than two-thirds of the island’s approximately 950,000 residents would be displaced, as the vast majority of residential structures aren’t built to withstand Category 4 winds.
In the densely populated areas of Honolulu and Waikiki, about 42 percent of buildings are expected to be at least moderately damaged by flood waters.
Oahu is particularly at risk because much of its critical infrastructure is in flood inundation zones.
There would likely be mass casualties, and the island has “limited capability, resources, and storage facilities to store and process human remains, which will include all unearthed corpses at cemeteries,” according to the plan.
Oahu airports and ports could also be out of service, jeopardizing imports of food, fuel and other goods.
“Debris, power outages, saltwater inundation, flooding and damage to ports will be extensive,” according to the plan. “Structural integrity of runways, docks, and facilities will be compromised.”
In addition to food shortages, Oahu’s water infrastructure could be damaged, jeopardizing drinking water as well as water needed for firefighting, sanitation and decontamination.
Oahu is also particularly at risk from damage caused by a major storm because much of its critical infrastructure is in flood inundation zones. This includes the island’s two oil refineries, 61 percent of Oahu’s power generation facilities, the majority of the island’s food distribution centers and one-third of nursing facilities.
The plan predicts that power will be out on Oahu for up to 40 days, and possibly longer in some locations, while the oil refineries will be shut down for several weeks.
McKeown said that emergency officials were currently using the plan to scale it to the current storm threats, noting that it was an evolving situation.
“We’re working through that analysis to tailor it to what we know about Hurricane Iselle and where it might impact the islands and the type of damage that might occur,” he said.
You can read Hawaii’s hurricane plan here.