As if the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t enough, now add hurricanes to Hawaii’s list of worries.

This year’s season for the fierce and potentially destructive storms starts June 1. The National Weather Service forecasts a strong chance that the Central Pacific will see near- to below-normal hurricane activity through Nov. 30.

It further cautions, however, that all it takes is one direct hit to inflict widespread damage.

That leaves the islands’ emergency-response leaders — as well as weary and cash-strapped local residents — facing a unique, dual-threat scenario in an island state that’s severely vulnerable to disaster.

Local officials recommend that the public add hand sanitizer and masks to their 14-day kits even as they acknowledge the economic fallout from COVID-19 has left much of those hurricane supplies depleted and many residents unsure where they’ll get their next meal.

“This exacerbates the problems and the challenges that we’ve had before,” said Karl Kim, a University of Hawaii professor and chair of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center.

Residents in Waianae board up their windows ahead of Hurricane Lane in 2018. This year’s hurricane season starts June 1, and the COVID-19 pandemic presents unique challenges.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Even without a pandemic, Hawaii’s emergency response “was challenging for a number of reasons,” Kim said.

On Oahu, emergency public shelters are already in short supply and it’s not clear how those buildings, mostly school facilities, would fare in hurricane-force winds.

Now, add the physical-distancing requirements to help prevent the virus’ spread and that already tight shelter capacity shrinks exponentially.

Normally, Honolulu officials allow for about 10 square feet of space per evacuee. With physical distancing, they say they’d need about 100 square feet per person, leaving about a tenth of the shelter area.

“We’re stuck in a tough situation,” said Hiro Toiya, Honolulu’s Director of Emergency Management. “That is a huge challenge that I’ll readily admit that we haven’t solved yet.”

One potential solution: The city is exploring whether the island’s vacant hotel rooms might safely shelter evacuees, Toiya said Tuesday. But there’s still a lot of variables — it would require agreements with those hoteliers and a way to fund the operation.

Plus, the city would have to determine that the hotel buildings would hold up in a hurricane, Toiya added.

No deals have been reached yet. Mufi Hannemman, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association and the city’s former mayor, said the hoteliers would be open to such a request.

Maria Lutz, the Red Cross of Hawaii’s regional disaster officer, said on a conference call Wednesday that anyone entering an evacuation shelter this season would be temperature-screened first and would have to wear a mask.

If someone has a fever or shows symptoms of COVID-19, they’d be placed in an isolation room away from the general public, Lutz said.

“When COVID was first declared a pandemic, most of us knew in the back of our minds” that hurricane season was approaching, Toiya said. “Most of us have been thinking about it for awhile.”

A Moderate Forecast, But An Unusual Year

The National Weather Service forecasts between two to six tropical cyclones in the Central Pacific waters that surround Hawaii this hurricane season.

Normally, the region sees four or five cyclones in a season, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That number can fluctuate significantly from year to year.

However, as climate change intensifies and warmer ocean temperatures creep north, climatologists estimate Hawaii could see the number of tropical storms and hurricanes that either pass nearby or make landfall increase by 15% each decade.

That’s if the world’s rate of carbon emissions remains the same.

The islands have seen five direct hits from either a hurricane or a tropical storm since 1950, according to the Central Pacific Hurricane Center. Three of those direct hits happened in the past six years.

If a storm does hit this season, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people continue to practice physical distancing when checking on neighbors, staying at least 6 feet apart.

The Philippines already faced its first challenge responding to a deadly storm in the age of coronavirus when Typhoon Vongfong hit the Western Pacific archipelago last week.

Emergency shelters there are often overcrowded when typhoons hit. One mayor told The Associated Press that he had managed to secure enough masks for his town’s villagers but physical distancing would be impossible with the shelter space available.

A satellite photo of Hurricane Lane in August 2018. The storm broke apart just south of Honolulu, sparing major damage there.

NOAA

Meanwhile, on Oahu, the thousands of aging, wooden homes present a further challenge. Computer-based disaster modeling has shown that thousands of families would be displaced even in a Category 1 hurricane, their single-wall construction homes left severely damaged or destroyed.

With the pandemic in play, many residents might opt to shelter at home during a hurricane instead of evacuating to a public shelter, officials said.

Thanks to COVID-19 “a lot of people are in difficult financial condition” and can’t afford costly retrofits to better protect their homes, acknowledged Dennis Hwang, a coastal hazard mitigation specialist at the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant College Program

He’s among the state’s strongest advocates pushing for home retrofits, and he co-authored a free downloadable handbook for those looking to better protect their homes.

On Wednesday, Hwang encouraged residents to take what reasonable steps they could to protect against the storms. That includes clearing debris from their property, drains and gutters — and installing hurricane clips to secure the roof. 

Additionally, many Hawaii residents have been avoiding hospital visits since the pandemic started, according to Lt. Gov. Josh Green. He encouraged those patients to refill their 14-day supplies of medications ahead of the storm season.

Toiya added that his agency would work with the Hawaii Healthcare Emergency Management Coalition to take the necessary precautions when evacuating any senior care facilities.

Practice With A Tsunami Watch

Hawaii’s emergency operations centers, or EOC’s, already got a dry run handling a major natural disaster earlier in the pandemic, when the state fell under tsunami watch on March 24.

Toiya recounted learning of the watch, the result of an earthquake in the Kuril Islands, as he recorded a COVID-19 public service announcement at Honolulu Hale.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell during questions and answer session during press conference. Coronavirus

Honolulu Emergency Management Director Hirokazu “Hiro” Toiya with Mayor Kirk Caldwell at a coronavirus briefing in March.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he thought.

His agency had the city’s EOC activated about a block away before he returned, he said. All of the counties’ EOCs activated as well, he added.

“It actually made me feel better,” Toiya said. “We’re working to stay sharp.” The tsunami watch was lifted eventually.

Still, the potential for a double-whammy that includes a pandemic “just highlights all of the weaknesses within our existing system — especially for an island (with) limited space to begin with,” UH’s Kim said.

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