Buyouts and other disaster mitigation await more funding

Always Investigating

Rebuilding after natural disasters can easily hit billions of dollars, but recent close-calls have state and county officials in Hawaii rethinking what to do.

With more frequent and more damaging storms expected, sea level rise, and lessons learned from the lava flow, there’s a move away from rebuilding where there are risks of future losses. What that means for key areas around the state remains to be seen, and so far the funding for this approach falls short, even though experts know the returns on the investment can save much, much more in post-disaster losses.

A lava flow, record rain and floods, erosion and sea level rise, near-miss hurricanes and direct-hit tropical storms — Hawaii has been front and center for catastrophes over the past year. Disaster declarations bring post event money, things get built back up, sometimes right back in disaster’s path.

Most of the money we have available is post disaster. It comes on the heels of all the repair, said Larry Kanda, hazard mitigation officer at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

But there’s a change in thought, locally and at the federal level, to shift more toward prevention — what they call mitigation, avoiding repeat losses. How? Getting people and structures out of the riskiest areas. It’s often referred to as managed retreat these days, but in Hawaii it’s not all that new a concept.

If you look at Hilo after the 1960 tsunami, the Waiakea portion of town and Shimachi which was hit quite extensively, there were some buyouts, Kanda explains. That part of town, which now is the golf course and soccer fields, used to be a thriving community, there were theaters, businesses and now  most have been relocated elsewhere.

It was managed retreat before that was a catchphrase.

But it was somewhat different times. You had a lot of land available, Kanda said. It’s called a kaiko’o plan, that Mayor Harry Kim always refers to as part of the model that we’re looking at.

They’re looking at kaiko’o now for the 700 plus homes lost to lava, and other homes and farms that are lava locked from last year’s months-long flow.

One of the strategies on the table is what you call a buyout — buy those folks out, and relocate them elsewhere, Kanda said.  The logical thing is to condemn the properties. It’s easy to say that but difficult to execute.

A group of state, county, federal and community stakeholders has been meeting regularly weighing what to do. KHON2 asked, when is this group going to decide what’s going to happen to the properties and those people, because they have been in limbo a long time? Kondo said the decision could be made within months.

It’s really hard for the residents of the Big Island, Kanda said. That’s a major issue the County  of Hawaii is facing now, how to look at the coning of the lava flow zoned areas, whether to encourage people to go back and rebuild or completely shut it off.

There are two federal programs that may support buy-outs as an avenue to mitigate future risks, explained Diane Ley, from the County of Hawaii Department of Research & Development. One source is FEMA Mitigation Funds, but the lion’s share could be a hoped for hundreds of million from HUD Community Development Block Grants.

Long-term planning for a mix of on-site recovery and possible partial managed retreat is on-going, decisions have yet to be made by the county, Ley said.

“Once we get the HUD money, I’m talking about the county and the state, they have 90 days to formulate an action plan which means exactly what they’re going to do with that money, Kanda added. “It (approval) could come within the next 60 days.

Lava relocations aren’t the only managed retreat on the table. A 1,300 page hazard risk study the state had to do for the feds says Hawaii needs to reduce the risk of losses from coastal hazards, too.

“Probably on Oahu you’re looking at the North Shore, Kanda said. “Properties are being eroded and falling into the ocean. Those properties are not cheap, very expensive. You look at Maui there’s a development  of condos on Kahana Bay, they’ve been severely impacted.

What would managed retreat look like there and elsewhere?

When we look at buyouts, for example, they’ve done it elsewhere on the mainland, what you want to traditionally do is buy out a community, whether it’s 20 folks, so you don’t have to redevelop the area, Kanda said. It becomes like a green area, a park or something else.

Buyouts anywhere come down to counties.

“Our Hazard Mitigation Plan identifies property acquisition as one of the potential categories of mitigation actions, explained Hirokazu Toiya, director of the Honolulu County Department of Emergency Management. “DEM does not, however, have plans for any specific locations at this time.

“We would need to carefully evaluate options and look at specific circumstances before making any decision on possible buyouts, Toiya said.

“It is our understanding that the funding is limited and highly competitive on the national level, Herman Andaya of Maui County said, regarding whether to use federal money toward local mitigation buyouts. “I also believe that mitigation funds have not been used to buyout homes along the shoreline. We have considered applying for (federal) funds in the past, however, we have been very selective knowing the selection criteria of this program. In addition, the owner must agree to participate in this program.

More imminent projects like the pending federally designed Ala Wai flood control project is getting push-back because of the dozens of properties upstream that could be affected, and some people don’t like the idea of a 4-foot wall by the canal.

“If it’s your house affected,’ I don’t want to move I’ve been here 50 years,’ Kanda said. “It becomes a cultural and emotional dilemma. But the risk is that one huge (Ala Wai flooding) event could ruin our economy for an extended period. We all know Waikiki is the breadbasket for Hawaii tourism.

Whether it’s flood control now or lava buyouts now, or wholesale retreat away from oceanfront land in the near future, experts know every $1 spent in mitigation saves $6 in disaster recovery spending. And yet Hawaii only gets $575,000 a year from FEMA’s pre-disaster program. We’ll follow up to see if the money flow changes more toward prevention.

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