While Hawaii has been at the forefront of clean energy policy in recent years, this 2019 legislative session is turning out to be a colossal failure in terms of actually preventing and preparing for climate change.

We know the risk is huge. Up until 2014, the only hurricanes to hit Hawaii in my lifetime were Iwa (1982) and Iniki (1992). But in the last five years, there have been nine tropical storms or hurricanes which have hit, or come very close to hitting, Hawaii. That is because the increase in ocean temperatures in Hawaii waters over the last five years is fueling more tropical storms and hurricanes.

Hurricanes Lane and Olivia last year hopefully scared most of us straight in terms of being personally prepared for the next major natural disaster. That is good, but what about the fundamental structures of our community that we all rely on?

Our systems for survival — like delivering water, removing waste, providing shelter and medical care — do not seem at all ready. We are about as prepared for the next major natural disaster as Puerto Rico was when Hurricane Maria hit.

An animated depiction of Hurricane Lane’s winds.

Earth: A Global Map of Wind, Weather, and Ocean Conditions

But we can learn from Puerto Rico’s experience and get prepared now. The key is moving past the self-congratulating, vague commitments to long-term goals and digging in to invest in real resiliency. There is so much to be done:

Water: After a major hurricane, will the electricity be available to pump water to the water tanks? If not, after the tanks are drained, there will be no water available to households from the Board of Water Supply. Water stored in bathtubs and bottles and large containers will provide most homes with a four-week supply of water. And after that?

We need to think of natural reservoirs — ponds, swales, streams, wetlands. Hawaii should also consider changes to building codes to allow homes to have cisterns and rain barrels. We should not take our water supply for granted.

Food: According to most studies, there is somewhere between five and 14 days of food available on Oahu. Should a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami close down Honolulu Harbor, will there be enough food to feed 1 million people? If not, we will all be a lot thinner.

One solution is to start encouraging home gardens, more community gardens, and school gardens. By composting organic matter (including food waste), we have a greater supply of soil amendments.

And, of course, we need to start growing more food crops for local consumption. Hawaii can do much better than 10%. This could be a component of a Hawaii Green New Deal.

Electricity: Most Oahu electricity is generated at the Kahe Power Plant. It is easy to envision a hurricane knocking out the plant since it is located on the coastline. And what then?

We need to think DG — distributed generation. DG is much harder to knock out. At least some electricity sources (e.g. microgrids) will survive a Category 4 hurricane. Why not rapidly move to DG?

And, of course, we could put PV panels on every roof in the state.  Another possible component of a Hawaii Green New Deal.

Shelter: Hurricane Iniki is an example of how unprepared we were for a Category 4 hurricane. Hurricane clips will at least keep our roofs from being blown away. But many homes will still be destroyed or badly damaged in a major hurricane.

Let’s upgrade our shelters and have emergency housing ready for those whose homes are destroyed. Making our schools more shelter-ready and building post-disaster housing could be similar to what the Civilian Conservation Corps did during the Great Depression. Again, invest in a Green New Deal for Hawaii.

Sanitation: We take our sewer system for granted. But when it doesn’t work, we notice. Disease can spread rapidly when our sanitation systems fail. Where is the planning to keep the public safe from diseases like cholera, which is easily spread when there is no sanitation system?

The state should give the counties money to disaster-proof the sewer systems on each island.

Transportation: The roads will be damaged by a major hurricane, earthquake or tsunami. They will be covered with fallen trees, telephone poles and pieces of buildings. We won’t be able to drive very far, if at all.

Even walking to another town could be problematic — roads and sidewalks could be like minefields. How will we get food and emergency supplies to affected areas that have no road access?

Emergency preparedness teams need to be in position before a hurricane hits so that services can be accessed quickly by survivors and those in need of aid. Let’s think in terms of Complete Streets ideas of walkability and services located in each neighborhood, making driving less necessary.

Medical care: Hospitals can last only so many days on generator-supplied electricity. The gasoline and diesel to supply the generators will be in short supply after a disaster.

As with electricity, we need to think in terms of distributed care. Not just large institutions like hospitals, but community health centers in every neighborhood. They will be able to provide some services and be much more accessible after being disaster-proofed (with money appropriated by the Legislature).

Hawaii needs to be proactive. Not only will community medicine save money (much more expensive to react to disasters without adequate preparation), but people will get to know their doctors/nurses/medical staff much better than in a large hospital.

We have, at most, 11 years to halve our CO2 emissions. In the meantime, we need to become more resilient for those climate change impacts that cannot be avoided. Another hurricane could come this fall and it won’t matter what our long-term goals were, unless we are resilient enough to weather the next disaster.

We need our lawmakers at the Legislature and county councils to heed the overwhelming public support for climate-related measures and implement them. We have the political will to take on the most important issue facing humanity, so let’s get to it. Time is of the essence.

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