In just the past few months the United States was hit by the fourth most powerful storm on record since 1969, Hurricane Michael. It followed another destructive storm, Florence, a month earlier.
The world’s strongest storm this year, Super Typhoon Mangkhut, blasted the Philippines in September. Another powerful storm, Hurricane Walaka, then wiped from the face of the Earth a remote island in the Hawaiian archipelago. And this week Super Typhoon Yutu pummeled the Northern Mariana Islands, the strongest storm to hit anywhere in the U.S. and its territories in more than 80 years.
Think we are immune? While Hawaii has managed to dodge several nearby storms recently, including Hurricane Lane in August, it’s clear to anyone paying attention to the weather that we will be hit one day, possibly quite hard.
A recent special report from Civil Beat titled “Are We Ready?” made it clear that we are not, and far from it.
As it approached the islands in August, Hurricane Lane looked for a while like it might be the big one.
The stakes are highest on Oahu, especially Honolulu, home to the state’s population, government and business center. In a worst-case scenario, a massive storm could cause more than $43 billion in destruction, kill 500 people and injure 20,000 more, and leave half of our population displaced and without power for a month.
In spite of the grim projection, “Are We Ready?” also suggests a number of proactive steps that the public and private sectors could take to mitigate potential damage. They primarily involve power, shelter and supplies:
Because electricity is generated mostly on the leeward side of Oahu, Hawaiian Electric Co. must work to ensure critical windward facilities — especially medical clinics, fire and police stations and wastewater treatment plants — have backup power.
The idea of setting up “community enclaves” in isolated areas where residents could have access to essential supplies holds promise but should move beyond the conceptual stage where it is now.
Oahu woefully lacks sufficient shelter space strong enough to withstand strong storms. The shelters, most of them public schools, also lack emergency supplies and staffing. The work of assessing shelter conditions and retrofitting them must be expedited.
Honolulu Harbor is the main lifeline for goods that come to the state. Should it be incapacitated, the consequences will be felt from Hanalei to South Point. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency is well aware of the problem and is looking to make Pearl Harbor a backup to Honolulu Harbor. Let’s make sure solutions are found sooner rather than later.
One creative idea to address food and supply shortages is for the state to partner with big box stories to add warehouse space. It’s also up to residents themselves to make sure that homes have at least two weeks of food and supplies.
One positive outcome of Hurricane Lane was that it showed the public and private sectors climbing out of their silos to acknowledge that we are all in this together. It is encouraging as well that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving to protect low-lying Waikiki from the threat of flooding of the Ala Wai Canal.
Contributing to the urgency to be storm-ready is that Hawaii, an island state, is also especially susceptible to global warming. A recent United Nations report warns of a world of “worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040.”
Climate change and warming seas are also weakening the current conditions — the central Pacific’s strong vertical wind shear and favorable ocean temperatures— that have often shielded Hawaii from storms. And there are also the eternal threats of tsunamis and earthquakes and maybe even a nuclear attack.
Want to know what Hawaii might look like after disaster hits? Look no farther than Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017: thousands dead, areas without power for months, people relying on rain water for cooking and cleaning, others using machetes to clear roads.
“The time to prepare is now,” the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said after Lane.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell and Landess Kearns. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.