Lessons Learned 40 Years Ago From Hurricane Iwa - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Doug Carlson

Doug Carlson managed corporate communications for Hawaiian Electric Company in the 1980s. He was a four-decade Honolulu resident until moving to the mainland in 2012 and now lives in Lincoln, Calif.


We Americans make a point of observing the anniversaries of major historic and natural events. Maybe there’s a psychological benefit in recalling traumatic events shared with many others.

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I don’t know psychology, but I do think emergencies are important learning opportunities that can benefit us years later.

The 40th anniversary of Hurricane Iwa, which struck the islands on Nov. 23, 1982, two days before Thanksgiving, is such an opportunity. Thousands of island residents will remember that Thanksgiving as unlike any other.

Power outages were widespread on Oahu. Turkeys and other Thanksgiving favorites were cooked on backyard charcoal grills instead of in kitchens. Hawaiian Electric Company linemen later said grateful residents gifted them plates loaded with food time and again during their restoration work.

As the storm arrived early Tuesday evening, those of us on duty in HECO’s Richards Street communications office were so sure our building wouldn’t lose power that we didn’t have flashlights or even candles with us.

We used matches to call emergency broadcaster KGU, which had a backup generator and was the only station on the air. The only number we had for the station was the one in the phone book, and people all over the island were clogging the line with their storm stories.

The last straw for me personally was the kid who told KGU’s blacked-out and apprehensive audience that he was flying a kite tied to a mailbox up on Alewa Heights.

A forecast track for Hurricane Douglas in July 2020. It’s only a matter of time before a major storm again threatens the Hawaiian Islands. Courtesy: NWS

With the station prioritizing calls like that, there was no way HECO could get through, nor could the governor, Civil Defense personnel, the police or any other authorities.

Our only option was to drive to the Newspaper Building on Kapiolani Boulevard, climb to the third floor (using matches again), and urge KGU’s staff to end the “entertainment” and put us on the air.

That’s what they did, and listeners finally had some “hard” news on the blackout — HECO’s initial assessment of transmission line damage in the Koolaus and an estimate of when crews could begin restoring service.

Citizens have a right to expect communicators to act responsibly during emergencies.

Iwa had been raging for only about an hour, but already valuable lessons were learned.

First, be prepared and assume nothing in an emergency. Sheer hubris had led us to believe our office wouldn’t lose power during a hurricane.

Second, communicators need a list of radio station phone numbers that are not available to the public. That lesson was lost over the years, as we learned in 2006 when two Big Island earthquakes improbably shut down Oahu’s electric grid, and emergency communications suffered.

Anyone with a responsibility to tell the public what’s happening during and after an emergency needs to compile such a list. When they do, they might anticipate how they’ll communicate when digital phone networks fail, as they often do during power failures.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all: Media outlets with a public service mission must prioritize information over entertainment. Some media personalities haven’t learned that lesson, but citizens have a right to expect communicators to act responsibly during emergencies.

Hurricanes in the Pacific likely will increase in frequency and intensity as the climate changes. Reflecting on Hurricane Iwa’s lessons learned 40 years ago is more than a nostalgic exercise. It’s a survival necessity in the here and now.

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About the Author

Doug Carlson

Doug Carlson managed corporate communications for Hawaiian Electric Company in the 1980s. He was a four-decade Honolulu resident until moving to the mainland in 2012 and now lives in Lincoln, Calif.


Latest Comments (0)

I am so glad someone finally wrote about how bad Iwa was. I use to wonder if anyone remembered since references always seemed to be made when speaking of hurricanes only to Iniki. I remember watching from my home in Kaneohe and seeing the open sea outside Kaneohe Bay actually moving en masse in the exact opposite direction of its normal flow--outbound instead of inbound. It was both amazing and chilling. I also remember the sound of the wind gusts coming over the Koolau's--like a monstrous train rolling down the mountains and blasting Kaneohe. There was no electricity for a whole week or more. None and no idea when it might return; or all the power poles on Kamehameha down across the street with their lines. Iwa was bad and the lessons mentioned in the article above need to be burned into the mind. Hurricanes should always be taken seriously--grain of salt or not.

BlueHI · 1 week ago

That’s undoubtedly true. Guy enjoys the benefits of a revolutionized weather industry, which includes a wealth of satellite imagery. When Iniki struck the islands on 9/11/92, it had veered overnight toward Kauai — a new track not known when most residents went to bed. Advertiser reporter and friend Walter Wright was working that night and called me at 1 a.m. to pass on the change in direction and a warning to get ready for a hurricane. Soon after, I went to the Hawai’i Kai Foodland store for batteries, water, and candles and found only one other shopper there. We had the run of the store. An unpredicted hurricane arrival is highly unlikely now thanks to that revolution.

DougCarlson · 1 week ago

Guy Hagi will let me know when the big one is coming 2 weeks in advance.

elrod · 1 week ago

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