In August, as Hurricane Lane neared the Hawaiian Islands, cargo ships and other large vessels weighing 200 tons or more left the state’s commercial harbors and headed out to sea for safety.

But many smaller vessels incapable of outrunning and outlasting the storm were left in the lurch when state harbor officials barred them from seeking shelter in those same commercial harbors, operators testified at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Furthermore, any small vessels in the harbor without express permission to stay were ordered to leave with Lane’s arrival imminent, they said.

“We were blindsided by this last-minute change in harbor policy that none of us were prepared for,” David Jung, captain for the Lahaina Cruse Company, told Senate lawmakers during an informational briefing.

Honolulu Harbor Matson Shipping Matsonia. preparedness.
A Matson shipping vessel docks in Honolulu Harbor, the state’s largest commercial port. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Jung, along with other tour-boat operators on Maui, had hoped to seek shelter for their fleets in the commercial port at Kahului once the forecasts showed Lane poised to batter the small-boat harbors where they’re moored and docked in Lahaina and Maalaeia.

In years prior, Jung and other operators testified, the smaller vessels that weren’t subject to a Coast Guard order to leave could seek shelter there whenever storms would threaten.

“Really our only hope was to moor in commercial harbors because they’re built to much, much higher standards,” Jung said Wednesday. “If the hurricane had followed that path we would’ve been in serious, serious desperate trouble.”

Commercial passenger and fishing boats such as Jung’s aren’t as big as the massive cargo ships operated by Matson and Pasha — but they’re not as small as most recreational sail boats, either. Those weren’t subject to the Coast Guard’s order to leave commercial harbors during Lane because they weigh less than 200 tons. Instead, under the state’s hurricane protocols, it’s left up to the state Department of Transportation’s Harbors Division in those situations to decide whether they stay or go.

DOT Harbors Division officials testified at Wednesday’s hearing, but they didn’t respond directly to the concerns raised by Jung and other operators of smaller vessels. After the meeting, DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara said that in the run-up to Lane, the agency wanted to avoid doing anything that might prevent the flow of emergency goods.

Any vessels already moored in the harbor had to provide the state agency with a plan of what they would do — and where else they would go — if a major storm struck, Sakahara added.

“It might’ve been allowed in the past” for smaller operators to seek shelter in commercial ports, Sakahara said, although it’s not clear what spurred the change. Sakahara said that DOT did give some advance warning of the agency’s policy ahead of the 2018 hurricane season.

Lahaina’s small-boat harbor was not where vessel operators wanted to be if the hurricane hit. 

Nonetheless, Jung contends that smaller craft could moor and dock in nonessential areas there without damaging or disrupting the flow of operations. On Wednesday, he said that about 20 operators on Maui had requested to move to Kahului ahead of Lane and that news quickly spread among other operators when DOT denied them access.

Contact Key Lawmakers

With dock space at a premium, Maui has some 100 vessels that moor offshore at its small-boat harbors, Zachary LaPrade, a member of the Honolulu-based Ocean Tourism Coalition, told lawmakers Wednesday. In a storm, there’s room for maybe 25 boats to squeeze into the harbor, leaving some 75 boats vulnerable offshore.

Wednesday’s hearing also raised the larger question of where the 2,000 or so boats docked at the small-boat harbors across the state would go in the event of a major hurricane strike.

“On the mainland, you have different harbors to run to — you can go to the next state,” Jung said afterwards. “Where do you go when you’re in Hawaii? There is not an option.”

Unlike larger cargo ships, most of these smaller commercial vessels aren’t capable of outrunning a hurricane in the deep ocean, Jung said. Furthermore, they lack the fuel and supplies to stay out that far and then return. Without a chance to take cover in the commercial harbor, those operators would likely see their vessels destroyed, he said.

Chair Senator Lorraine Inouye gestures while speaking to right, Co Chair Rep Sylvia Luke after Luke asked some questions about the language of the measure. 26 april 2017
Sen. Lorraine Inouye at a Legislative hearing in 2017. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I think there’s a lot of people who would’ve tried to save their boats and they would have lost their lives,” Jung said. “Because it’s their livelihood. That’s how they support themselves; that’s how they support their families.”

Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who chairs the Senate’s Transportation Committee, said that lawmakers would continue to discuss the issue in the weeks ahead.

“We have some work cut out for us,” she said at Wednesday’s hearing. She and her colleagues could consider whether to amend state law — and DOT’s policy on sheltering smaller commercial boats during a tropical cyclone.

The issue could take several years to fix, she said.

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