On Sept. 10, 1992, Jimmy Garland was a 23-year-old Coast Guard radioman in Honolulu. He had been tracking Hurricane Iniki to the south as it moved westward. Projections indicated the storm wouldn’t hit the island.
But when he got off duty that night he flipped on his TV to KHON, where newscaster Joe Moore reported the latest satellite image showed Iniki tracking a turn to the north heading straight for Oahu. “I remember thinking, ‘We’re not ready for that,’” Garland recalled.
The next day Hurricane Iniki took a sharp northward turn sweeping through Kauai, killing seven people and inflicting $1.8 billion in damage. The devastation left a deep impression on Garland.
Now Garland is a civilian working for Coast Guard Sector Honolulu as a preparedness specialist. “I’m looking at (Hurricane Douglas) and it looks scary,” he said.
As Hurricane Douglas makes its way toward Hawaii, the Coast Guard is trying to apply past lessons, while also coping with the unique challenges of operating during a global pandemic.
A chart showing Hurricane Iniki’s path through the Hawaiian Islands, September 1992. The storm’s path was originally projected to continue west before it unexpectedly turned towards Kauai.
U.S. Coast Guard
Usually in the event of a hurricane the Coast Guard would fly in additional personnel and start dispatching more ships to an area at risk.
However, due to concerns about COVID-19 the Coast Guard is relying only on the personnel on hand. If the damage proves to be severe commanders may call additional resources, but it’s uncertain how quickly they may arrive as Garland said they may require COVID-19 screening before arriving.
Capt. Arex Avanni is Sector Honolulu’s commander, overseeing operations across the islands and a wide swath of ocean. Among his duties is serving as Captain of The Port, ensuring safe operations at all of Hawaii’s commercial ports as well as at Pago Pago in American Samoa.
When a hurricane approaches the Coast Guard begins working with local agencies conducting a thorough inventory of the ports. “It’s our job to find out who and what is there,” said Avanni.
In particular that means looking for anything that winds could knock down or that rough waters could move around. They also try to determine if any ships or containers at the ports are carrying hazardous materials that could lead to environmental disasters if they’re damaged by the hurricane.
The Coast Guard helps with shoring up items at the port, as well as clearing the harbors of as many boats as possible, particularly large ones. If rough seas capsize a large ship in a port it could cause serious damage to the port or block ocean access.
That could cause huge problems for maintaining the supply chains, both for regular commerce or the delivery of relief aid if the hurricane causes serious damage on land.
Avanni noted that as much as 80% of all goods people use in Hawaii including food come through the ports, and of that 90% go through the Port of Honolulu first. “If the Port of Honolulu goes down for any reason we lose food in three to five days,” said Garland.
The Coast Guard patrols Honolulu Harbor. Keeping ports open and safe is one of the top priorities during a hurricane.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Many of the coast guardsmen assigned to Sector Honolulu have extensive experience responding to hurricanes around the world. Avanni has worked during several hurricanes during his time in the Coast Guard, having responded to both hurricanes Sandy and Maria.
As a result, Avanni said that he’s sometimes more cautious than his fellow officers and more quick to order ships to get moving.
“You’ve got to go big early,” he said. “We try to get as many ships out of port as possible as soon as possible so they can do hurricane avoidance … the last thing you want is like a giant cruise ship trying to move when it’s too late.”
Most ships are currently moving south out of the path of the hurricane. The Coast Guard will also move its cutters out of the port, both to keep the harbors clear and to be ready for search and rescue missions in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Some of these lessons were learned the hard way. When Iniki hit Kauai in 1992 the Coast Guard’s Cutter Point Harris was undergoing maintenance at the pier in Nawiliwili when the storm hit. The engine was unable to operate and Coast Guard personnel were forced to leave it.
As the storm approached, wind speeds were reported up to 143 mph and a sea level nearly 30 feet above normal. The sea carried a catamaran into the Point Harris, destroying the cutter.
Garland was one of several coast guardsmen dispatched to Kauai after the storm.
“Every phone line was knocked down,” he recalled. He remembered the wind had stripped trees almost bare of any leaves and several homes lost their roofs. “It looked like a war zone,” he said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Disaster Survey Report released the following year, Iniki damaged 14,350 homes and destroyed 1,421 others across the islands.
A chart with hand-drawn notes shows the path of Hurricane Iniki as it travels over Kauai, in September 1992. Iniki was the most destructive hurricane to strike the Hawaiian Islands in the 20th century.
“It’s not like we’re going to stop the hurricane,” said Avanni.
He said the Coast Guard and other agencies are preparing, but he urges Hawaii residents to make sure they take their own preparations seriously.
Garland said that residents should ensure that they have 14 days of food, as well as to stock up on any prescription medicine they or loved ones might need.
“Medicine is important,” he said. “While people are rushing to get food sometimes they forget.”
He added that those with pets should ensure they don’t forget pet food either.
“Those are the things a community really needs to bounce back,” said Avanni.
Avanni also stressed that even before the storm hits the seas and winds could be unpredictable.
“Stay away from the water,” he warned. He said that he knows some residents might be tempted to watch the storm from the shore but added, “It’s not something to risk your life for.”
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Kevin Knodell covers the military and veterans in Hawaii and the greater Pacific for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms.