City, state making adjustments to be ready for disaster recovery

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It has been the year of the disaster for every county across the state, and now the hard work of picking up the pieces continues. Following up on KHON2’s “Ready for Disaster” series from earlier this year, we now take a look at the recovery phase.

Mother Nature put Hawaii to the ultimate test in 2018, and all this week we are looking into lessons learned about how to smooth out the long road to recovery. The series starts with the impacts on public infrastructure and government response.

Floods, lava, fires, storms, and hurricane threats. It’s been one hit after another and, in the case of lava, a lingering disaster.

“The impact part of it is usually over pretty quick,” said Talmadge Magno of Hawaii County Civil Defense. “In this case, the volcano took four months or so. We are going to be in recovery for years.”

Damage affected Hawaii’s public infrastructure and pushed government resources to the limit, perhaps nowhere more so than on Hawaii Island where the disaster itself unfolded for months, and the recovery will take far longer.

“I’m not sure if any government really plans for that,” Magno said, “because we can see that the capacity of all the other departments, they’re having to participate, so it’s impacting their normal activities as well.”

Hawaii County is moving from a disaster-readiness mindset to a long-haul outlook.

“It’s definitely a strain,” Magno said. “Over the course of time, we’re adding our capacity in the different departments, hiring personnel specific to the recovery.”

Public-sector recovery on Hawaii island will mean potentially overhauling longstanding community plans, deciding what to rebuild where and what may never come back.

“The recovery that we’re going to be in now, we’re looking at the zoning,” Magno said. “So many people impacted, so much infrastructure lost. Where do we go from here?”

Kauai is still digging out from an historic storm that cracked and swept homes off their footings. Its mayor-elect sees changes ahead in how to approach recovery.

“When you take a look at disasters, the first thing you see mayors and governors do is say, ‘We are going to rebuild to what we used to be,’ and I’m not necessarily convinced that is the right thing to do,” Mayor-Elect Derek Kawakami told Always Investigating. “We really need to rethink how we rebuild, what it looks like, and how we’re going to mitigate any future disasters as well.”

The mayor-elect of Maui County, Mike Victorino, also sees a different road to recovery and disaster-handling ahead after the first-recorded tropical storm landfall hit not once, but twice, as the eye of Tropical Storm Olivia grazed Maui and Lanai. He’ll be calling all response-agencies together.

“There’s work to be done, and I will be meeting with them very soon to start formulating improvements, to see where the weaknesses are, to make sure we have the proper equipment, the funding that’s needed, work very closely with the federal and state agencies,” Victorino said. “I believe we have a great foundation already. Let’s improve on it.”

Getting resources and recovery money flowing between all the levels of government is something the state Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has seen several times this year. One lesson is not to become too reliant on federal funds and assistance, and don’t presume the recovery will be over quickly.

“We know that when those resources leave, the real recovery starts,” said HiEMA Executive Officer Luke Meyers, “and we’re seeing that now on the islands with these various incidents. So as those long-term recovery projects start, the mayors of the islands, the administrators of emergency managers and the other elements of the government and community really start to see how can we recover? It just takes time.”

Honolulu County says it wants to see the fact-finding and damage-tally process smoothed out to get disaster declaration money in sooner

“If we could have better information earlier on to give to the federal government that would certainly be helpful,” said Hiro Toiya of the county Department of Emergency Management.

Honolulu County is also poring over its hazard mitigation plan, getting expert and community input on how to make the island more resilient in the first place so there will be less damage to recover from.

“Response and recovery are really expensive,” Toiya said. “We want to make sure that we are mitigating as much of the disaster impact as possible, trying to reduce that long-term risk so that we don’t have to respond or recover from disasters as frequently.”

Much of that involves big costs and long-term changes to things like zoning or even building codes. More immediately, they plan changes in outreach.

“Our ability to communicate clearly with the public is paramount during emergencies,” Toiya said. “We’re striving for more transparency. We released some of the dam evacuation zones after Hurricane Olivia, and there are other hazards that can impact us that we have not been able to communicate as clearly to the public about.”

Toiya said he is referring to things like storm surge or other less frequent but just as dangerous events like an earthquake or other threats.

“The concept is going to apply across several different hazards,” Toiya said. “We want to take a look at an all-hazards approach, things you can do to prepare for any type of situation.”

Beyond just how the public sector approaches recovery, we’re digging into how individuals and families can but resilience for the recovery phase, also businesses, and schools. That’s all this week at 10 p.m. on Always Investigating.

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