All this week we have been examining the recovery phase after natural disasters, what government agencies, businesses and schools can do better. The “Ready for Recovery” series concludes with this focus on individuals and families.
People who have been through the worst share lessons they least expected, and experts see possible new approaches and recommendations ahead.
It’s been the year of the disaster: floods, storms, fire, lava. The destruction has opened a lot of eyes to what it’s really like in the days, weeks and months after Mother Nature throws your life into upheaval. Your fortunes can turn in minutes.
“We saw the fissure actually from our house,” recalled former Malama Ki resident Jenni Clear, remembering when they knew the impending lava flow had gotten close for comfort in mid-May. “The policeman drove up the driveway and said, ‘You guys have about 20 minutes to get out of here. We just grabbed all of our animals that we could grab and left. We said goodbye (to the home). We didn’t realistically think it was a real goodbye. We thought we’d be able to get back to the house, but we never did.”
Their house and everything left in it is gone. Some cats they couldn’t find are missed most desperately.
Hundreds of others across the lava zone have been through the same.
“I will always remember a lot of things about it,” said Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, “but always number one will be people, the people impact, the emotionalism of what they went through. I know that some people will never recover. Some have already left the islands.”
“I had four friends who would always play together and now they’re gone,” said sixth-grader Kelton Clear. “My friends left, one went to Montana.”
For those who stayed, “it will take years for the community to recover from this,” Clear said. “It’s financially had such an impact. The mental impacts were hard.”
People at the epicenter of Hawaii’s disasters this year say be ready for the long haul most of all emotionally, and take heed of what they learned financially.
“The insurance experience for most people seemed to be a nightmare,” Clear said. “We did get paid. Many people did not or are still fighting, but we did not have a lava exclusion and so that helped us. I think everybody just needs to read their policy, every little tiny word, and make sure you’re prepared for what you’re truly covered for and not covered for.”
Experts agree insurance coverage that includes the risks you’re exposed to is the number-one step for a smoother recovery.
“One of the main things we see with these incidents is insurance for the type of incident, whether it’s flood, wind or lava,” said Luke Meyers, executive officer of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HiEMA). “There are small steps from an insurance perspective individuals can take.”
Getting through the immediate aftermath safely is the first step in the longer road to eventual rebuilding or relocation.
“We look at two weeks of supplies for these incidents,” Meyers said. “It goes back to the personal preparedness so whether it’s 14 days or 21 days.”
The standard guidance has been two weeks. We asked Meyers to explain more about where the 21-day reference came from.
“What we’re seeing with some incidents is maybe you should be prepared for longer types of disasters or incidents,” he said.
Always Investigating asked, will HiEMA be changing the official guidance from 14 to 21 days or more, and if so when?
“No, not at this time,” Meyers said. “We think the 14 days is a good national message that’s also out there, so we wouldn’t see changing that, but we do want people thinking about incidents that can go on for a much longer amount of time.”
Kim has a different perspective on guidelines after decades in disaster management
“This is the first time that I’ve said this openly: We have to evaluate those standards of 14 days that were set in the mainland,” Kim said. “The generic type advice we give is good for some but it is poor for others.”
Kim says the readiness kit recommendations for those initial recovery days needs to be more site- and disaster-specific.
“Lava flows, tsunami, surf and surge, what good is 14 days of supply when you can’t stay there because every one of these you’re going to be asked to leave,” Kim said. “I think we learned that pretty easy in the 700-plus homes destroyed. I don’t care how well prepared, it would have been fruitless.”
He sees other considerations for urban settings and people in small condos and apartments.
“Let’s say you live on the 20th floor anywhere, a standard apartment or condo, how in the world are you going to store 14 days of water for your family? How are you going to store anything for 14 days?” Kim said. “Regardless of what you recommend, you know that there will be a percentage who have not planned. The responsibility of government is to plan for that.”
Survivors say in retrospect, life feels unexpectedly lighter without all the stuff they had to desert, and they say the biggest lesson learned for recovery is that helping each other uplifts each and every person.
“Just being thankful that you have your lives, you have your family, you have love and friends,” Clear said. “Community is still there, and community is unbelievable during this whole event.”