Emergency officials prioritize community groups that serve vulnerable communities as they weigh which buildings to retrofit with limited dollars.

Lanakila Pacific, which runs Oahu’s largest meals-on-wheels program, has been awarded a $1.6 million federal grant to help retrofit and protect its Liliha facility against natural disasters and the growing impacts of climate change, emergency officials said Monday.

Those dollars will come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. They’ll go toward a more than $2.2 million effort to fix the 85-year-old nonprofit’s aging roof and entrances, plus protect Lanakila Pacific’s kitchen facilities, which have endured flooding after heavy rains in recent years.

“Without repairing and hardening the building we may not be able to fulfill our mission when the community needs us the most,” Lanakila Pacific President and CEO Rona Fukumoto said at a press conference Monday as Hurricane Dora spun south of Hawaii. “Each time a hurricane approached the islands, our concerns were magnified.”

Lanakila Pacific Director of Food Service Reid Yasanuga shows state and federal officials his nonprofit's kitchen facility, which prepares food for Oahu's largest Meals on Wheels program. It's also endured flooding from heavy storms.
Lanakila Pacific Director of Food Service Reid Yasanuga shows state and federal officials his nonprofit’s kitchen facility, which prepares food for Oahu’s largest meals-on-wheels program. It’s also endured flooding from heavy storms. (Marcel Honore/Civil Beat/2023)

Lanakila Pacific’s 1,300 or so volunteers provide some 2,000 daily meals to seniors across Oahu, officials said at the event. The retrofit at the Liliha building where those meals are prepared should be done by June, Fukumoto said.

The nonprofit’s retrofit award comes as Oahu grapples with broader, island-wide concerns about how well its neighborhoods and communities will endure in a hurricane or other hazard. Hawaii’s most populated island has nearly 200,000 wooden homes and other aging buildings that fall well short of the building codes that aim to protect against climate change and other hazards.

Most of Oahu’s emergency public shelters, which largely consist of public school buildings, are not designed to withstand a hurricane. At the current rate of funding, it will take about 300 years to retrofit all of the state’s shelters, according to officials at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, or Hi-EMA.

FEMA’s hazard mitigation grants, meanwhile, have grown competitive as communities across the country try to better protect against climate change. The Lanakila Pacific grant is part of a strategy to prioritize the community groups that will serve vulnerable populations in the wake of a disaster, state and federal emergency response officials said Monday.

“We realize this project is one building — millions of dollars for one building. But it’s more than that,” Hi-EMA Administrator James Barros said Monday in Liliha. “It’s really empowering Lanakila to continue its critical mission serving the vulnerable population of Oahu. Not only day-to-day but when a disaster strikes.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who also attended the event, said afterwards that “there’s no doubt that we have a lot of facilities that are vulnerable to extreme weather.”

“We need to prioritize those that provide essential services first and … we have to get more money,” Schatz said. “We’re working (on) both of those lines of effort.”

Lanakila Pacific will use a new FEMA grant to replace its gated entrances with impact-resistant glass ones to better protect its kitchen facilities. The nonprofit offers the largest Meals on Wheels service on Oahu.
Lanakila Pacific will use a new FEMA grant to replace its gated entrances with impact-resistant glass ones to better protect its kitchen facilities. (Marcel Honore/Civil Beat/2023)

The Lanakila money will help pay to replace the building’s open-air gates with impact-resistant glass doors and windows, Fukumoto said. It will also help retrofit the building, its roofs and the connections between those components to meet international building codes, she added.

Meanwhile, community leaders in Hauula, hope that FEMA will help fund a “resilience hub” that could serve as an emergency shelter and a center to distribute food, medicine and supplies throughout that rural and vulnerable Windward region after a disaster. 

They’ve applied for money through FEMA’s separate Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program but have only managed to get a “technical assistance grant” so far.

On Monday, FEMA Region 9 Administrator Bob Fenton said he hadn’t heard of the Hauula proposal. Still, he encouraged local communities to apply for grants on proposed hazard mitigation projects. 

For every dollar invested ahead of time to mitigate against a disaster, six dollars in disaster loss are saved, according to Fenton.

“We will face challenges, guaranteed. But we will face them as a community — and that is the power of the kako‘o (the group),” Barros said.

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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