I remember Hurricane Iwa.

My dad tied down the roof of our house. I remember standing in the doorway perplexed as he fastened the ropes.

My parents gathered my little brother, who was 2-years-old at the time, and I into their bedroom. We were huddled up on a mattress on the floor.

I remember the windows in the bedroom being boarded up. I can’t remember if they were blocked with the twin sized mattresses from our bedrooms, I think they were, but I remember the darkness of the room.

My parents told us to watch TV until the electricity went out. Scooby Doo was on. We sat there quietly watching my parents’ small TV until the power went out.

We didn’t understand what a hurricane was. I don’t think my parents bothered to explain it to us. I don’t know that they even said the word: hurricane.

Hurricane Iwa. November 1982 photograph at EOC Fasi Building Basement . 4 aug 2015.photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A 1982 photograph of Hurricane Iwa, which caused $312 million dollars (in 1982 dollars.) The most severe damage was on Oahu, Kauai and Niihau.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The next day, after it was over, my parents loaded us into my dad’s navy Buick and we went for a drive. I’d never seen anything like it.

Trees and telephone poles littered the roads. Trees looked like they had snapped like toothpicks. I was 6 years old in 1982 when Iwa hit, and I’ve never forgotten it. These storms have a way of staying with you.

We always have hurricane supplies. We steadily go about filling water coolers and checking batteries when we are told to prepare. We don’t ever mind preparing – it’s just part of living in Hawaii.

Last week marked the anniversary of Hurricane Iniki, the Category 4 hurricane that struck Hawaii in September of 1992.

Iniki remains the most powerful hurricane to hit Hawaii in recorded history with wind speeds reaching up to 160 mph, according to the official NOAA Natural Disaster Survey Report issued in 1993. The storm made landfall from the south and proceeding to travel directly over the islands causing catastrophic damage, primarily on Kauai.

Seven people were killed and approximately 100 more were injured. The official report assesses the damage at $1.8 billion (in 1992 dollars). According to the report, 14,350 homes were affected with 1,421 “destroyed” and 5,152 “suffering damage.”

Comparatively, Iwa caused $312 million worth of damage. Iselle, which hit the Big Island in 2014, caused between $148 million and $325 million in damages.

In the wake of devastating hurricanes like Dorian making the news, it seems appropriate to think about Hawaii’s increasingly vulnerability to hurricanes.

While recent years don’t compare to the devastating El Niño years when Iniki hit, there is reason to be very concerned about the increasing impact climate change is having on our local environment and how those changes impact our resiliency to severe storm events.

NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which focuses on comprehensive research that advances scientific understanding of the various processes that govern the behavior of global climate systems, provides concerning conclusions about the relationship between global warming and hurricanes (also known as tropical cyclones).

Their main conclusions are:

  • Sea level rise should be causing higher coastal inundation levels for tropical cyclones that do occur
  • Tropical cyclone rainfall rates will likely increase
  • Tropical cyclone intensities globally will likely increase
  • The global proportion of tropical cyclones that reach Category 4 or 5 levels will likely increase

These conclusions certainly seem to be consistent with the activity we are seeing in the Pacific. The 2018 Pacific hurricane season saw the highest accumulated cyclone energy in recorded history. We are not necessarily seeing more named storms, but we are seeing an increase in their intensity.

Couple this with the mass coral bleaching event that is beginning in our waters. Scientists associate coral bleaching with increased sea surface temperatures. In 2015, a devastating coral bleaching event took place in Hawaii’s waters as a result of unprecedentedly warm waters. Approximately 60% of the coral around Hawaii bleached and 30% would eventually die altogether.

The current sea surface temperatures are exceeding those from 2015, and researchers are already beginning to see signs of a mass-bleaching event. While bleached coral is not technically dead, it is severely weakened. It is well established that coral reefs, particularly healthy coral reefs, protect coastal areas from severe storms.

Our reefs are essential to our resiliency.

Therefore, it is important to do whatever we can do minimize the damage from the upcoming bleaching event. As we think about how we prepare for hurricanes, we must also put equal energy into protecting our ecological resiliency. We can do this by:

  • Not touching, standing on, or anchoring on any reefs;
  • Making sure that we are telling others, both residents and visitors, not to touch, stand on, or anchor on any reefs;
  • Make sure we are not using sunscreen with oxybenzone or octinoxate, as these chemicals decrease the corals’ ability to defend themselves against bleaching;
  • Suspend fishing for herbivorous fish when reefs are vulnerable, as these aid in the process for maintaining ecological balance in reef systems.

A coral bleaching tracker has been launched and people are encouraged to report affected areas.

A Category 4 or 5 hurricane would again cause catastrophic damage in Hawaii. We should not wait until warning sirens go off to act.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.