Hauula’s efforts to build a resiliency hub may get a boost from a FEMA grant supporting more rural areas.

Residents in Hauula have been working for years to build Oahu’s first-ever resiliency hub, a storm-resistant center that could better protect their rural, isolated and vulnerable North Shore community after a hurricane, tsunami or other disaster.

So far, the community nonprofit Hui O Hauula has managed to raise about $3 million from city, state and private sources for a facility that is now estimated to cost more than $40 million, according to Dotty Kelly-Paddock, the executive director.

But Kelly-Paddock is hopeful that the city’s recent receipt of “direct technical assistance” from the federal government to help further the Hauula effort, plus develop a broader network of resiliency hubs around Hawaii’s most populous island, could get them closer to their goal.

Large netted bags containing some black stone-like material along Kamehameha Highway in Hauula to protect the highway from rising tides.
Large netted bags containing some black stone-like material along Kamehameha Highway in Hauula to protect the highway from rising tides. The rural, isolated community is particularly vulnerable to climate change on Oahu and its residents are pursuing a new “resiliency hub” building. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Under that grant Federal Emergency Management Agency officials will come to Hauula and “see the roads, the age of the homes – all of the issues that make it hard to mitigate serious damage” after a disaster in Oahu’s isolated Koolauloa region, Kelly-Paddock said Friday.

The direct technical assistance grant is part of FEMA’s highly competitive Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program.

The one that was just awarded to Hauula and the city doesn’t come with money, but Kelly-Paddock hopes the exposure they get now that they’re part of the FEMA program will eventually lead to more lucrative funding grants under BRIC.

Such a funding grant, she said, could provide most of the money needed to build Hauula’s proposed resiliency hub.

However, the city and Hui O Hauula already applied unsuccessfully for BRIC money once before, in 2021, according to Honolulu Department of Emergency Management Director Hiro Toiya. 

Toiya and Matt Gonser, who’s leading the city’s efforts against climate change impacts and natural disasters, say they haven’t committed to pursuing another BRIC application for the Hauula hub. They’re still weighing whether a repeat try would make sense.

The Hauula community would need their support because the application requires a local government sponsor.

“We’re knee-deep in exploring how we can better support them,” said Gonser, who’s Honolulu’s Chief Resilience Officer and leads the city’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency. 

Nonetheless, Kelly-Paddock said she believes Hauula remains a competitive applicant because FEMA has started giving more priority to vulnerable rural communities under the program.

“I’m not finished with FEMA BRIC,” she said. A successful application could fund as much as 90% of the project cost, Kelly-Paddock said.

City officials previously highlighted the concept of a Hauula resiliency hub in their 2019 Ola plan, which was formed under Honolulu’s previous mayor, Kirk Caldwell, to better protect the island against climate change impacts.

“That highlight (in the Ola plan) is their vision,” Gonser said, referring to Hauula. “That’s what they crafted up. And they’ve been exploring different avenues to pursue this.”

“One was unsuccessful in the past,” he said, referring to the 2021 BRIC application.

“We’re really trying to figure out how to help them next and honor what they want to do,” Gonser added.

‘We See Climate Change’

In general, resiliency hubs are envisioned as community centers where resources and services could be swiftly distributed to local residents in the wake of a disaster.

The overall concept is still being hashed out, however — and what actually makes such a hub will vary from place to place, Gonser and Toiya said. The centers are also meant to support and strengthen communities in “blue-sky” times, when a disaster isn’t in play.

Currently, the city is working with a research group based at Kapiolani Community College dubbed the Center for Resilient Neighborhoods to better define what those hubs will look like on Oahu and how they’ll get developed, Toiya added. A final report on that collaboration is slated to be done in August, he said.

The 2019 Ola strategy also required city leaders to develop an action plan to determine where to establish resiliency hubs across Oahu and how they would function.

That plan was supposed to be done by 2020 – but that goal was set prior to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequently pushed back. Now, it’s slated to be done by the end of this year, according to Toiya and Gonser.

The resiliency hubs aren’t necessarily supposed to be disaster shelters, Gonser said, but Hauula residents have said they need a new building that could support the community after a disaster and host events and gatherings during those “blue-sky” days.

Dotty Kelly-Paddock is spearheading efforts to create a resiliency hub in the Hauula region of Oahu. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Typically, the city doesn’t build new disaster shelters, Toiya said. Instead, it works with the state to retrofit existing facilities such as school buildings to serve in that capacity.

Even with those efforts, however, “the state of hurricane shelters in our community is not good,” Toiya said. 

Hardly any of Oahu’s shelter facilities meet the proper standards to withstand a hurricane. At current funding levels it would take more than 300 years to suitably retrofit all the buildings needed.

The situation is even more dire in Hauula, which lacks any suitable buildings to retrofit. That’s why Kelly-Paddock and Hui O Hauula aim to create a new building from scratch on a state-owned, 5-acre plot of land that’s sufficiently inland from the coastline.

Currently, the community uses that state plot as what Kelly-Paddock describes as a “resilience park.” It regularly hosts a farmers market and other events there, she said.

Members of Hawaii’s federal delegation have earmarked nearly $5.4 million next year for planning and construction of the Hauula project. That funding still hasn’t been finalized, however.

“You have to understand, we see climate change,” Kelly-Paddock said earlier this year, noting the small community is far from Honolulu.

“We see our beach parks disappearing. We see houses being threatened,” she said. “Our major highway … is so at risk, we never know on a daily basis if we’re going to be able to travel on that highway.” 

“Our understanding and our visibility of climate change here is so much more impactful on our lives than people living in Honolulu that we don’t stop for a minute,” she added.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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