POSTED: 12:00 a.m. HST, Dec 21, 2012
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye earned a reputation for delivering big-budget projects to Hawaii, such as the H-3 freeway and major military facilities. But the impetus for many of the federally funded initiatives he shepherded through Congress grew out of his everyday interactions with constituents in the community.
When Inouye was delivering a speech on Hawaii island, a member of the audience slipped him a note explaining that his young granddaughter had difficulty breathing when emissions from Kilauea volcano were particularly strong. Hawaii's senior senator responded by helping channel funding to the Centers for Disease Control to study the effects of volcanic emissions on Hawaii island residents.
"The CDC put together a project with the University of Hawaii medical school that found emergency-room visits rose 80 percent during times of high volcanic activity," said Patrick DeLeon, Inouye's longtime chief of staff who retired last year. "It was listening to the little person from which many of these bigger things evolved."
"He had this amazing vision, and it always came back to the individual, to the family."
Inouye also had a knack for connecting with community leaders to determine what programs were needed to strengthen Hawaii's stature in areas such as education, public health, technology and agriculture.
It was his conversations with Dr. Terrence Rodgers, founder of the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine, that inspired Inouye to push for programs enabling nontraditional and disadvantaged students to pursue medical careers.
"He created a whole new track of Native Hawaiian medical students," DeLeon said.
Inouye followed a similar approach in helping fund a long list of projects. Among them were the College of Pharmacy at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the Hawaiian studies program at UH-Manoa, the Women in Technology statewide workforce development initiative, the Ford Island Bridge, the Hawaii Energy and Environmental Technology Initiative, the Papa Ola Lokahi program for Native Hawaiian health care, military housing privatization and the Hale Koa Hotel at Fort DeRussy used by active-duty, reserve and retired military members.
"He would determine what was needed and how to get it done. He had this amazing vision and it always came back to the individual, to the family," DeLeon said.
Inouye's commitment to education both at the national and local levels paid dividends for Chaminade University.
The senator was instrumental in helping the university secure federal funding used to launch its nursing program in 2010, said Brother Bernard Ploeger, Chaminade president. The funding was provided under a five-year, $500,000 Title III grant, for which Chaminade qualified because 13.5 percent of its students are of Native Hawaiian ancestry.
The threshold to qualify for the program is 10 percent Native Hawaiian enrollment.
Once the grant is exhausted, the nursing program will be sustained by funding from tuition, Ploeger said.
Inouye's support for establishing the federally funded U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo illustrated his commitment to agriculture in Hawaii and the rest of the region, said Dennis Gonsalves, the center's director.
The $53 million center that was proposed in 1996 and opened in 2007 brought together under one roof work that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had been doing separately on each of the major Hawaiian islands.
"Sen. Inouye wanted to build PBARC as a legacy for Hawaii's farmers. Funding for state programs goes up and down with the economy, but having the USDA funding means we can focus on the long term," Gonsalves said. "To the credit of Sen. Inouye, when he saw sugar plantations and pineapple begin to go down, he knew that Hawaii would need help. So he utilized earmarks to build this research center. It's another one of the huge impacts that Sen. Inouye had on the state."
One of the center's major focuses is in work to develop insect-control treatments that allow farmers to ship their products out of state, Gonsalves said.
PBARC also has a team of researchers working on ways to control the coffee berry borer, a beetle that officials fear could severely damage Hawaii's $27 million coffee-farming industry. One of the strategies researchers are exploring is a way to have the coffee bean ripen in a shorter period of time before the beetle can do its damage, Gonsalves said.
"We're also looking at ways to make use of agricultural waste — things like turning waste papaya fruit into biofuels and high-protein feed. It's a way of offsetting the high cost of farming in Hawaii."
Inouye's work on the energy front included obtaining federal funding for a host of programs in Hawaii. He helped secure $14.8 million to develop hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles in Hawaii, $5 million in annual funding for the Hawaii Energy and Environmental Technology Initiative and about $5 million annually for the Hawaii Renewable Energy Development Venture.
Inouye spoke at a meeting of the HREDV in October and announced that for the next four years he would be concentrating on energy, said Mark Glick, administrator of the state Energy Office of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
Inouye also would meet once a quarter with Glick, DBEDT Director Richard Lim and other members of the local energy community to see what projects needed funding, Glick said.
"He certainly was on top of it. Watching him I saw that he not only had a good grasp of things, but the vision to move things forward. He understood he had the ability to make things happen."