The threat of direct hits from hurricanes used to be a rarity in Hawaii, but not anymore. As we experienced last year with Hurricane Lane, climate change is here and hurricanes near Hawaii are the new normal.

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In fact, the islands are expecting a busy hurricane season this year. It is urgent that everyone understand how serious the danger is and how to prepare for it, because the islands are not ready.

Why is this such an emergency?

As outlined in a report by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, the islands are incredibly vulnerable. This is because Hawaii relies on a constant supply of imported fuel, food, water and medicine and has no significant strategic storage in place.

On impact, a direct hit on Oahu from a significant storm will close the Port of Honolulu and knock out the power grid. After five days, the only food and water available will be what people have saved for themselves.

Medical supplies will run out in three days. Dialysis and breathing machines will be unavailable. Shelters will fail, because few are built to withstand a hurricane. HIEMA estimates that port closure could last for weeks, months or indefinitely.

If this happens, many thousands of people will die or be displaced. Recent studies have shown that the low-lying areas of Waikiki and Ala Moana will be underwater. Many locals and visitors will suffer from exposure, dehydration, starvation and lack of medical care.

This is what happened in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, when 2,975 people died. The vast majority perished in the months after the storm due to a lack of clean food, water and medical care. In addition, the storm caused the largest migration from Puerto Rico since World War II. Hawaii can also expect significant loss of life and economic displacement.

A satellite photo of Hurricane Lane last August. Are we prepared for the next big storm? NOAA

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and the governor have urged the population to prepare. Most people have heard that they should have 14 days of supplies at the ready. Residents are also advised to stockpile medication, know if they are located in a flood zone and have plans to seek shelter. But the truth is much more complicated.

How can insulin stay refrigerated without power? How can families know if they are in a flood zone? If shelters will fail, where will families go?

Also, many people cannot afford two weeks of supplies and have nowhere to store them. Remember, it is expected that outages and shortages will last much longer than two weeks. People will simply not be able to survive completely on their own without power, food, medical care and shelter for a prolonged period of time.

The government must prevent this catastrophe, and show that there is both a credible plan to provide short-term assistance to residents and visitors and a long-term plan for storm protection. In addition, significant action should be taken to address the vulnerability of the islands’ fragile power grid.

Connect The Dots

As I wrote recently, at a minimum, critical facilities like hospitals, police and fire stations and shelters need to be hardened to withstand storms and equipped with renewable power. There must be meaningful progress on community-owned renewables, clean energy access and affordability. Owners of rooftop solar need the ability to island their systems (or operate independently when disconnected from the grid) in the case of grid outage.

Hawaii could get started by connecting the dots between plans that have already been made. The state has ambitious goals for solar power in the public schools. Significant resources have also been dedicated to cooling the schools and making them more energy-efficient. The Hawaii Green Infrastructure Authority has seen recent success. If resources are corralled and directed, it is conceivable that school shelters and other critical facilities could be hardened now.

It is imperative that the government act now to help the public prepare.

Hawaii can look to an unexpected and far away state for solutions. Recently, New York passed the nation’s most ambitious climate legislation, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Importantly, the law provides a dedicated stream of funds to identify and assist communities that are most vulnerable to climate change and provide them with clean and renewable power.

It is imperative that the government act now to help the public prepare. It must also shore up key infrastructure and services in order to prevent widespread catastrophe. This will take leadership from Gov. David Ige, the Legislature, towns and municipalities. Right now, the reality is that the islands are too vulnerable. Do everything you can do to prepare yourself, and call your representatives to demand storm protection now.

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