A roadmap created to help Hawaii leaders confront an upswing in natural disasters calls on county-level officials to begin directing recovery efforts long before disaster strikes.

As the number and intensity of storms in Hawaii are predicted to increase in the face of climate change and sea level rise, the report advises officials to build the county’s recovery muscle preemptively by developing and testing new policies that address how the different wheels of government will work together to rebuild and reshape neighborhoods under siege.

Predictions of worsening weather for the islands already started materializing in 2018, when the state endured a disastrous flood caused by nationally record-breaking rainfall on Kauai. Next up: A dramatic volcanic eruption accompanied by hundreds of small earthquakes on the Big Island followed by severe flooded caused by the near-strike of a hurricane on the Big Island and Oahu. Wild fires and localized flooding also caused damage on Maui over the course of a year of wild weather.

At least three homes along Hanalei Bay’s shoreline were pushed off their stilts due to high flood waters in April 2018. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Confronting these weather events successfully in the future will require counties to figure out the logistics now, according to the report.

“The more thoroughly that recovery issues can be contemplated in advance,” the report concludes, “the greater will be the efficiency and the quality of post-disaster decision-making, which will then lead to more resilient community recovery.”

The statewide guidance and tools for boosting community resilience to coastal hazards, storms and sea level rise was authored with  by the Hawaii Sea Grant College Program and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Here are a few major takeaways from the report.

Embrace Community Input

Community engagement is key to writing a pre-disaster recovery plan or framework that clearly articulates property redevelopment policies and programs to take effect when a catastrophic weather event takes places, according to the report. That’s because residents will be more likely to support the decisions of local agencies during the recovery process if they are brought into the fold of planning early.

Draft New Ordinances Early

When the Northridge earthquake thrashed the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles in 1994, it left 51 people dead and rendered 2,300 building uninhabitable.

Contributing to the wreckage was the regional popularity of tilt-up construction, in which a building’s exterior walls are created on-site by pouring concrete into giant panels that can be lifted into place when the concrete hardens. This kind of construction saves on building costs, but it is known to hold up poorly during seismic activity.

In this case, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety had already scripted a draft ordinance that would require the owners of tilt-up structures to retrofit their buildings, thereby reducing future risk of property damage and bodily injury. When the earthquake struck, the city council immediately enacted the ordinance, a move that helped rid the earthquake-prone region of these older, more vulnerable buildings.

The report cites this forethought of government leaders as an example of pre-disaster planning that helped the affected area quickly establish more earthquake-resilient communities — without pausing to research and debate recovery strategies.

Don’t Rebuild The Status Quo

The report urges county leaders to review the Hawaii Urban Renewal Law, which authorizes local government to give a group or agency the power to overhaul areas ravaged by climate change or inclement weather by calling for their total redevelopment. The law could have been used, for example, to limit the freedom of homeowners to rebuild on the soft sands of Hanalei Bay after a flood wiped out their large homes last year.

When a neighborhood is damaged or destroyed, government leaders are advised to rebuild a safer, smarter and more resilient neighborhood in its place. For example, the sudden availability of federal emergency disaster relief funds for rebuilding Kauai’s Haena State Park on the heels of the April 2018 flood afforded local agencies a chance to implement long-planned adaptions to climate change and sea level rise. The money also helped fund crowd-control measures to combat the impacts of too much tourism.

A Lagging Recovery Can Cost Big Bucks

Another reason to prepare for recovery before a disaster strikes: Hawaii’s remote geography, concentrated shoreline development and tourism dependency put the state’s economy at heightened risk if recovery lags. A prolonged recovery period could increase the wealth gap among residents.

Counties poised for slow recovery in the face of storm and climate events might also experience poor financial impacts. For example, the S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings did not downgrade the Big Island’s municipal credit rating during Kilauea Volcano’s eruption in the Lower East Rift Zone in 2018, according to the report. But the rating agencies did study and offer opinions about the county’s ability to cope with natural disasters, the report states.

Assign Duties Now

Also included in the report is guidance for counties on establishing leadership roles for damage and structural integrity. In advance of a disaster, powers can be granted to specific agencies for tasks such as emergency demolitions, cultural resources preservation, historic preservation, blight control and hazard mitigation.

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