Thursday, February 15, 2007

Moving Beyond Katrina's Lessons....

This blog is dormant and not likely to be resumed. Hawaii presumably already has learned whatever lessons it can take from the 2005 storm and the obvious mistakes made in preparing for it.

We've continued to write about tsunami- and earthquake-related communications issues at two other blogs -- Tsunami Lessons and Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies (CHORE). We invite your readership of those blogs and thank you for visiting Katrina's Lessons.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

An Update on Inquiries about Readiness -– Plus the 'Unreported' News from the Summit

The Asia-Pacific Homeland Security Summit and Exposition came and went last week in Honolulu with not as much attention paid to natural disasters as some might have hoped. That’s not a criticism, just a fact. The Summit gave participants a good look at the processes crisis planners use to prepare for the next (first?) terrorist act in Hawaii, and the implication was that their response to natural disasters is thereby enhanced.

That’s probably true, but it’s also true that crafting a simple letter response to an inquiry about Hawaii’s preparedness for our next major hurricane before the Summit was beyond the grasp of the State and County civil defense agencies and the Honolulu FEMA office.

County CD director Bill Balfour (a long-time acquaintance) was apologetic for not getting around to responding in the lead-up to the Summit and said he would.* State vice-director of CD Ed Teixeira, momentarily put off by the suggestion that his office needs a routine way to respond to citizens’ inquiries, nevertheless was cordial and basically agreed with the suggestion.**

* 9/29 update: Bill Balfour did respond by saying the questions in the original inquiry letter deserve answers; he offered to cosign a letter from State Civil Defense, which he believes is the appropriate agency to provide the response. Also, Balfour reports that FEMA Pacific Director Woody Goins told him Goins does not reply to letters but assigns them to someone else (who don't reply either).
** 9/30 update: Ed Teixeira's letter arrived on this date with a detailed response to several questions directed to him earlier this month. A future post to this web log will include the points made in his letter.

The "Unreported Summit Comment of the Week"

Honolulu’s two daily newspapers gave scant coverage to the Summit and missed what this participant and others -- judging from the reaction of fellow delegates -- believe was among the most important comments of the week.

Speaker Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore and an expert on terrorism, responded to a question from the floor about his observation that conditions in Iraq are now favorable for recruitment of terrorists into Al Quida and other groups. I asked him if those conditions could have been predicted before March 2003. The following is a condensed version of Dr. Gunaratna’s response. Only his comments that were taken down verbatim are in quote marks; the rest are paraphrased:

I am among friends here in Hawaii and I will respond with frankness and hope my remarks will not offend my friends. The top-level officials in Washington, D.C. lacked a deep understanding of the Middle East, and this is what led to the invasion of Iraq. Europeans have a better understanding and did not support the invasion.

“America has made a fatal mistake by invading Iraq. You and your European friends will suffer.” “ It will be an even greater mistake to withdraw from Iraq.” America must work with friendly nations to stabilize Iraq with their troops. If you don’t, Iraq will produce even more attacks, inside and outside of that country. This is a man-made threat that will be a problem for years. “I doubt very much that (Hawaii Adjutant General) Lee will be able to bring his troops back next year. I fear he’ll have to keep his troops there for many years.”

Dr. Gunaratna received a standing ovation from the audience of several hundred that included many uniformed members of the U.S. armed forces.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Two Weeks of Inquiry Make It Absolutely Clear: Hawaii Is NOT Ready for Natural Disasters, Including the Two Hurricanes Now Approaching

To their credit, the Honolulu media have picked up the demand (first made by this web log on September 1) for answers about Hawaii’s readiness to survive its next major hurricane. Today’s Honolulu Advertiser is full of those answers.

But not all of them. Incredibly, the Advertiser writes:

“FEMA has been criticized for its response to Katrina. The agency did not respond to repeated requests from The Advertiser to discuss its role in dealing with Hawaii disasters.”

FEMA refuses to respond to Hawaii’s largest newspaper? If Hawaii residents want to condemn FEMA’s lack of responsiveness in the hashest terms, who would blame them? (Guess we won't be holding our breath waiting for an answer from FEMA's Honolulu chief to the letter sent to him in early September.)

Elsewhere in Advertiser stories, Hawaii’s crisis planners have admitted that notwithstanding whatever they’ve been doing as professionals, the state remains woefully unprepared to survive a category 3 or higher hurricane.

Today’s lead story begins:

“Despite glowing reviews about Hawaii’s ability to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters, serious gaps plague the system, raising questions about how well the state can weather a direct hit from a major storm.”

What’s missing? Start with adequate shelter. “The Achilles heel for us is having adequate shelters for our people,” said Ed Teixeira, vice director of state Civil Defense. The Advertiser reports Oahu has a shortage of about 60,000 spaces; statewide, the shortfall is 124,000.

And of the shelters in the inventory, none have been specifically designated for the elderly, sick or disabled. “It could be a real disaster,” said the state AARP director.

The newspaper also uncovered this gem: “Hawaii is the only state in the country that is not part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which has a one-stop system for a state to seek emergency aid from other members during a time of disaster.” The cost to join is nothing, so why hasn’t Hawaii signed up?

What about communications? The City’s director of information technology says the communications system is vulnerable due to the lack of maintenance. “It’s over 10 years of neglect,” he said of the previous administration’s performance.

The paper’s “Focus” section rounds out its disaster-preparedness coverage today with a commentary by retired Marine Corps officer and Honolulu resident Col. Peter F.C. Armstrong, whose piece has a similar theme and asks similar questions as the commentary that launched the Katrina Lessons web log two weeks ago.

The upcoming Asia-Pacific Homeland Security Summit and Exposition this week in Honolulu will be Hawaii residents’ opportunity to press our crisis planners for even more answers. FEMA’s representatives at the Summit, if any attend, might well expect to attract considerable attention, especially with two hurricanes bearing down on Hawaii.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Is the "Disaster Preparation Begins with Each Person" Theme a Convenient CYA Cop-Out?

Today's Honolulu Star-Bulletin advances the concept heard over and over in the post-Katrina period. The editorial -- "Preparing for natural disasters begins at home" -- concludes with the motherly advice that preparing for an emergency begins with each individual.

Well, whether it "begins" there or not may be open to interpretation. Every city and state worth its salt began spending millions upon millions of dollars in civil defense planning and preparedness long ago. Are we getting a fair return on that investment? Should individual citizens be given an opportunity to provide feedback on the "comfort factor" of those plans before the next disaster?

(News item: Two named tropical storms in the eastern Pacific are expected to grow to hurricane size within 72 hours of this writing. The predicted path of future-Hurricane Jova takes it north of its current track straight toward the Hawaiian Islands.)
[9/16 update: Both storms have been upgraded to hurricane status.]
[9/27 update: Jova passed northeast of the state after being downgraded; Kenneth is expected to degrade and pass closer to the islands. The hurricane track link above shows only current storms.]

After Katrina, it should be an accepted practice to put our planners on the hotseat if necessary -- not for sport or because we're make-wrong artists but because these questions need asking to know where we stand as a community is our disaster preparedness.

"Three days of food, water, a battery-powered radio and a can opener" is always good advice, especially if you live in tornado or hurricane alley, but let's get specific about the big picture -- long-term housing for the homeless, long-term food supplies for mid-Pacific communities and all the other issues that our planners should have worked out long ago.

Just tell us your big-picture plans for survival, and we'll decide whether it feels right.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Tsunami of Media Stories Advances a Theme: How Well Is Hawaii Prepared for its Next Disaster?

Suddenly there are questions everywhere about whether all the planning and rehearsing has adequately prepared Hawaii for its next emergency:

Posted on: Friday, September 9, 2005
Tsunami warning signs not so clear

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Public understanding of the state's tsunami siren warning system is so poor that University of Hawai'i scientists will launch a $500,000 study on how to re-train residents and the authorities who manage emergency response....

* * *

Posted on: Saturday, September 10, 2005
Mayor: Disaster plan is lacking, outdated

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

A crumbling system of radio communication towers that will cost $25 million to repair heads a list of problems with Honolulu's outdated and poorly maintained emergency preparedness system, the mayor said yesterday....

* * *

Posted on: Sunday, September 11, 2005
Hawai'i can't let up in disaster readiness

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one question haunts residents of Hawai'i, the most isolated urban population on the planet: Are we prepared for a similar disaster here at home?

* * *

And so on, in both newspapers (no disrespect intended to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin by not including its stories here).

Let the questions continue up to and beyond the Asia-Pacific Homeland Security Summit & Exposition. Most of the stories and commentary in recent days have concerned natural disasters, so it's hoped the Summit & Expo will broaden its focus beyond terrorism, which the pre-conference publicity has highlighted.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI

Friday, September 09, 2005

Hawaii Residents Pick Up the Beat, Call for Crisis Plans' Details To Know if Islands Are Prepared

Polls show the majority of Americans are critical of how the crisis responders reacted after Katrina. Hawaii citizens are calling for details on the preparations local planners have made for the islands to recover after our next major hurricane. Here's a sampling of letters to Honolulu newspapers:

The Honolulu Advertiser, September 8

Doug Carlson's (Sep. 2) commentary is right on point. When I look at New Orleans and know that trucks and helicopters can get there from surrounding areas, and they're complaining about the slow response, I know that O'ahu disaster plans are inadequate. The recommendations of three days of food and water in a personal family disaster kit won't get us through a direct hit.

Please investigate and report on the answers to Mr. Carlson's questions.
Elizabeth Norcross

The Honolulu Advertiser, September 9

How well are we equipped on O'ahu to deal with a natural disaster and its aftermath and recovery? Are we learning (and preparing) to deal with a possible evacuation of this island on a massive scale? The good people of the tsunami-stricken regions in Indonesia were not prepared. Nor were the fine folks in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

I've been in Honolulu for more than seven years and can't recall a serious civil defense/natural disaster exercise involving the public. Is there a comprehensive disaster response plan? If so, does it have the money, staffing and resources needed to make it effective? Is it practiced? Exactly where are we as a state, county and city on this issue? I'd like answers.
Dennis Palmer
Red Hill

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 8
National Guardsmen are needed at home

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina it is now clearer than ever that it was a big mistake to send the National Guard overseas to Iraq. This is not only because it was an inappropriate use of the National Guard, but because it left us less secure at home. Not only were the personnel needed to restore order and rescue marooned citizens who weren't able to evacuate before the storm, but their equipment is exactly what was badly needed.

As citizens of Hawaii, are we more secure with Hawaii Army National Guard's Company A, 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry stationed in Iraq? I am proud of their service. However, how prepared are we in the event of an unpredictable catastrophic event such as a tsunami? We were hit by one 30 years ago. Are we more vulnerable now because our National Guard are stationed in Iraq?
Robert Schacht

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

More Questions Flow In for Crisis Planners

Last week's commentary on the poor agency response to Hurricane Katrina (see September 1 post) is producing additional questions from Hawaii residents who believe, as does this web log, that we need and deserve specific information from our crisis planners about Hawaii's disaster preparedness.

One caller suggested forming a citizens group to gather those details. Another wondered just how many personnel could be called on to maintain civic order if we were hit by a major hurricane in the months ahead. Hawaii's National Guard is deployed to Iraq until March. The caller also asked whether plans exist to integrate Hawaii's hospitals into a coordinated response effort.

Answers to these and other questions will help Hawaii residents know whether we're well-prepared for a devastating hurricane. This blog will post answers to questions sent yesterday to our local Civil Defense and FEMA leaders if and when they arrive.