About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Peacetime training processes should help expose organizational weaknesses.

Hawaii, we need to have a talk about the way our local government handles crisis. This Maui disaster in the wake of wildfires is terrible, but what is even more disturbing is how much of the tragedy was the result of a lack of initiative, a failure to plan and an absence of competence among emergency authorities.

There is a pattern that is beginning to emerge here in Hawaii, where we see the same problems occurring over and over in every challenge we face. Many of the bottlenecks and failures in the Maui response remind me of our local government’s botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

We can either keep making the same mistakes and keep squandering lives, or we can identify what’s wrong and change the culture of public administration in our islands.

Here’s some problems I see that need to be immediately addressed.

We don’t “train to failure” in Hawaii government

A king of Portugal once built a castle made of stone, only for it to collapse. Fearing a repeat of that problem, he built a second castle made of wood, only for that castle to be burned down in a fire. In government, “experience” does not necessarily translate to “expertise” if one’s real-world experience is so narrow that it doesn’t make one capable of considering multiple contingencies.

I know people are already calling for investigations and oversight hearings over Maui, and you can be sure those will reveal all the shortcomings or weaknesses that allowed that disaster to occur. But in a professional government organization, we don’t “learn” through constantly blowing things up and losing so many innocent lives that we’re forced to go before a board of inquiry, we learn by a process called “training to failure.”

Training to failure means authorities tasked with public safety or emergency management maintain the highest level of readiness by constantly subjecting themselves to peacetime training processes that expose limitations and bottlenecks. 

Herman Andaya stands at the podium in the Mayors conference room in Wailuku
Resigning before the job is done only puts additional pressure on the people left behind to fill in. (Hawaii News Now/2023)

This is very different than simply training for a hurricane, earthquake, or chemical spill – which they all do frequently – because in those scripted and scheduled drills where everyone knows what’s coming, emphasis is placed on practicing predictable responses rather than exposing limitations.

Training to failure requires the use of what I have previously referred to as an operational readiness inspection. The correct way to train a government organization is to have frequent random, unannounced, unpredictable drills where an “evolution” — also known as a challenge scenario — is deployed and everyone is evaluated on how they respond. These should come at any time of day, especially when an organization is least likely to be ready or able to perform them.

Key emphasis for evaluation is focused on:

  • How quickly communication, followed by response, occurs
  • How closely procedures or best practices are followed
  • How well equipment functioned
  • How well the evolution/scenario is resolved

Done enough times, an organization will know if a person charged with pressing an alarm button is too slow, if certain managers bicker with each other too long, or if someone is not creative enough to adapt to the evolution. The end result is that the organization gets optimized in peacetime rather than learning on the job when an island is on fire or a virus is sweeping the state. 

You never want to learn the organization is broken in the middle of a life-or-death situation. Instead, by training to failure, organizations are prepared for failure, so when real-world disasters occur, everyone is where they need to be, everyone takes initiative, and the problem is resolved often times before the public even knows something is wrong. (That’s called “good” government.)

Excessive emphasis on unproductive crisis press conferences

The purpose of all government communications to the public are to inform. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of press conferences where every elected official feels the need to show up, flanked by an army of experts, and speak for hours on end.

Because elected officials at these events aren’t actually experts (but want you to think they have the answer for everything) they often riff impromptu assurances that later turn out to not be true (but now “have” to be made true to save their political image) leading to a disconnect with the public. And while I know the for-profit media loves this for the spectacle it creates, the fact of the matter is these are unproductive and a poor display of public administration. We saw this with the TMT standoff, the pandemic, and now with the Maui wildfires.

This is a stark contrast with the “adults are in charge” press conferences from our not-too-distant past, where agencies sent experts to short press conferences and facts were stated dispassionately, speculations were few and far between, and elected officials were only brought in if they served the productive aim of making a vital announcement that couldn’t come from anyone else. 

Pro Tip: If your answer to most of the media’s questions are “we don’t know,” “we’ll find out,” or “let me get back to you,” you really shouldn’t be having a press conference until you know more. You’re eroding confidence with that behavior. 

Rebuking international media with cheap, parochial statements like “you’re not from here” is also an amateur move. Public confidence and support for ongoing operations requires people who know answers and who speak informatively, not people who speak just for the sake of being seen.

Quitting before the job is done

A lot of things went wrong and a lot of people are to blame for what happened in Maui. We can determine who needs to be held accountable later, but right now, we need everyone to show up to work and to do the job of helping Maui residents get out from under this crisis. This is bigger than any one of us; the priority right now needs to be helping people, and we can’t do that if people tasked with emergency management are quitters.

Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, left, was under immense pressure to fire his intelligence staff who had failed to detect the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their knowledge would later assist in the planning for the decisive comeback Battle of Midway, six months after Pearl Harbor. (Wikimedia Commons)

Maui Emergency Management Agency administrator Herman Andaya recently resigned in the wake of massive criticism, citing “health reasons.” There’s a big problem with this. When one quits in the middle of a disaster, that creates a leadership vacuum that other people who are already spread thin must now step up to fill.

Anyone can be a quitter. That’s a selfish move, if you ask me. A real emergency leader acknowledges mistakes, recognizes the greater duty to be done, and makes immediate corrective steps to save lives. Fixing broken things is the job. Stepping down is what we do when the crisis is over, not when it’s still ongoing.

Adm. Chester Nimitz, for whom Nimitz Highway is named, was under immense political pressure following the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in WWII to fire and replace his entire Oahu intelligence staff for their seeming failure. Nimitz refused, citing the need for their manpower and familiarity with the situation. As a result, the same staff that botched Pearl Harbor was instrumental in planning the comeback victory at the Battle of Midway. When you make mistakes, fix them, don’t just quit.

Ronald Reagan, prior to his election as president, said in 1980, “I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself under mediocre leadership that drifts from one crisis to the next, eroding our national will and purpose. We have come together here, because the American people deserve better from those they entrust our nation’s highest offices, and we stand united in our resolve to do something about it.”

Hawaii, we need to stop drifting from one crisis to the next. Let’s learn from the handling of Maui’s wildfires and make it the driving force behind better government, better leaders, and better public servants.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

So spot on it's embarrassing. As a population we are led to believe the low bar is the high standard, yet simply change state venues and you will most likely experience services and systems that prove this wrong. We have been lulled into acceptance of sub standard government performance and service. The Maui fires are a tragic example, but only the tip of the iceberg. For what we pay in taxes, we get the lowest generic brand of leadership and results. It should be opposite. Like Iniki, COVID and now Lahahina, will the public ever see real, meaningful change, or will it simply be finding the scapegoat so that protectionism and state quo can continue to reign supreme? Like rail, it will take years just to find out and the likely hood of significancy is minute.

wailani1961 · 5 months ago

Ironic that right after Gov. Green made his statement on easing regulations to build more homes that this was to happen. In Australia, they learn from there mistakes and require fire retardants in the wood and roofing, helping prevent these types of scenarios. With very little addition to the cost of building. So this type of fires don't ever happen again in there country. Will we learn from our mistakes? Or will we look at it as another area to commit fraud and up the price of homes 1300 percent?

TheMotherShip · 6 months ago

Well expressed, Mr De Gracia.I am so worn out on the expression, "we do things differently here in Hawaii ... show some Aloha ... and some respect for the Local people". Or in my former native Pidgin English, "you no can bring Mainland ideas ova hea!"They do thing differently in CA, NY or FL and pretty sure people there can be accommodating and respectful. A few bad apples now and then but you also have bad apples in Hawaii. Leadership. A bad trend I'm seeing in business and some government. The leader always wants to be front and center in good and bad times. Easy in good times. When the unko hits the fan, things go sideways-heated you can easily see what kind of leader this person is. Bad times builds character. Bad character builds mistrust.When the pandemic hit Hawaii, I saw a lack of leadership in your lame duck Governor but your Lt Gov did an excellent job of establishing guidelines, laws, and helping those in need. But what happened after Aug 8th?Since Aug 8 no one has come forward to show any leadership and get answers NOW for the displaced and the victims. All I see is your politicos pointing fingers; see no evil, hear no evil speak no evil.

808Refugee · 6 months ago

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