Schools, other departments rewriting continuity plans after year of disasters

Always Investigating

All this week we’ve been digging into the recovery phase after natural disasters to see the lessons learned and what is changing after storms, lava, fires, and floods wreaked havoc across Hawaii this year.

The series continues with a look at schools. What if a big storm affects a whole island or even the whole state? How will kids get back to school, and how will schools — many of which are the sole designated shelters — balance both community roles?

Hawaii’s schools and students have been put to the test this year.

In April, historic rain and landslides cut off north shore Kauai communities, including their access to school.

The Department of Education set up shop at Hanalei Colony Resort.

“Within days we established a satellite campus on the other side, so out there in those communities where kids had an opportunity to go right back to school,” said DOE Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson.

The Big Island lava flow closed or threatened private schools and displaced those students as well as many public school kids from their homes, but many found ways to finish out the school year.

It was déjà vu for some who had said a formal goodbye to schools over a lava threat before.

“In Pahoa during the eruption four years ago, every single school was closed, private, charter schools, all closed in a very short two- or three-day notice,” said Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim. “I credit DOE for the tremendous job they did, all the resources of bringing portables over from elsewhere.”

School portables sprang up at Keaau to take in all the Pahoa students, and the lava thankfully paused and spared the evacuated sites.

Just this August, Hurricane Lane spared much of the state but drenched parts of the Big Island including Waiakea Elementary. They doubled up in other rooms and kept on learning.

“The community came out the next day, helped us rip out the carpets, some of the baseboards, to strip it and start letting it dry,” Carlson said. “Within a few weeks, we had a contractor in there to redo the entire classrooms to get them back into full service. No school days were missed there.”

Hurricane Lane’s winds whipped flames into a frenzy on the Valley Isle, putting Lahaina’s largest school in peril.

“We had a fairly major fire pretty much surrounded the school, in the middle of a hurricane as well,” Carlson said. “We did miss one day of school for the keiki, but that is another great example where the entire community showed up at Lahainaluna High School to help them clean their campus.”

Disaster after disaster has us asking how the state’s largest department will cope? Is relocation and dislocation something that is now formally in the DOE’s planning process or will be going forward?

“It is and one of the requirements that came out of the incidents recently is that each of the departments update their emergency operations plans,” Carlson said.

The DOE and all state agencies are going back to the drawing board to make sure their recovery phase includes what they call COOP, or continuity of operations plans.

“All it means is, okay, so you lose this building,” Carlson said. “What other facilities do we have to go to? It forces us to think through those things.”

Always Investigating asked, in the scenario of a more massive disaster that affects a whole district a whole island, will this new plan address how the DOE will recover and deliver school services in something like a major hurricane impact?

“It will certainly touch on that,” Carlson said. “I have grave concerns as well as everybody, if we were to get hit by Category 4, Categery 5 hurricane as it was looking like we might very well do, it is going to be catastrophic. What are we doing? Yes, we are preparing as much as we can.”

Besides schools needing to get back to school, these buildings also serve as the public’s shelters, but they’re not big enough for everyone, and as Always Investigating previously revealed, most aren’t rated for hurricanes stronger than a Category 1.

“If you can shelter in place, you should shelter in place. We want you to be safe,” Carlson said. “Now, if it were a really significant event, could we? No, we couldn’t house everybody in our schools that are in the state. We acknowledge that. That’s part of our plan.”

Always Investigating asked, how would you get thousands of kids back to school if that broad of a community was affected by a big storm?

“We work every day with the Department of Defense, with HiEMA, with FEMA. I think a lot has been said, post these major issues, that one thing this did drive is us establishing even deeper relationships with all of those different partners to get us back to normalcy,” Carlson said. “Worse comes to worse, those are assets that we can tap back into to maybe establish temporary-type facilities even.”

Kim says that back in the 1970s, the county’s civil defense was tasked with Cold War planning for taking in people for shelter and schooling from Oahu and Maui in case of a nuclear attack. Pressures from island-by-island displacement could arise after a big storm, too.

“There was a full realization that was mission impossible,” Kim recalled. “We don’t have the shelters. We don’t have the school supply. We don’t have anything.”

On a smaller, localized scale, disaster by disaster, the lava event illustrates the push and pull of the schools’ dual roles as educational and shelter facilities.

“We had looked at the Pahoa schools realizing schools had just let out so they were available, but we realized talking to the DOE, they had programs and so forth,” said Talmadge Magno of Hawaii County Civil Defense. “It wasn’t really suitable for sheltering here, so we went to the county facilities.”

“We know as best as possible you will not occupy the schools during the school time,” Kim said, “whether you have to set up tent city, whether FEMA will have to bring portable, but yes. We will minimize the occupation of schools as best as possible.”

Emergency management and county leaders say schools are still suitable to weather the storm, but alternate plans, and getting back to learning, should be each site’s immediate priority.

“The schools being a little bit more of a hardened structure, we look at them for mainly the wind events,” Magno said. “After the hurricane or the system passes, we get them out. If they cannot return back to their homes, then we put them into the county facilities for the longer haul.”

Always Investigating will follow up on those school operations and COOP continuity plan updates, and any changes to shelter locations.

The disaster recover series continues Thursday night with how families and individuals can better their odds of a smooth recovery.

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