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Hawaii News

Big Island short 63 civil defense sirens

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Four years after a powerful earthquake rocked the Big Island, the Hawaii County still lacks an adequate number of warning sirens.

Four years after a powerful Big Island earthquake underscored a statewide shortage of civil defense sirens, the problem persists, particularly in Hawaii County.

In 2006, State Civil Defense did an analysis and identified 148 sites statewide where no warning sirens exist — 63 on the Big Island. The state found another 119 older sirens needing to be upgraded or replaced. That’s 267 total.

Since 2007, the Legislature has appropriated $14.2 million statewide, but at $85,000 a siren, that is enough for only 167. Civil Defense says it still needs another $8.5 million to install 100 more sirens.

February’s tsunami scare revealed the Big Island’s coastal areas were not adequately covered with sirens, said Pete Hoffmann, who represents Kohala on the Hawaii County Council.

"We had about 14 hours to prepare for that reaction, and managed to get most people off the coastal areas," Hoffmann said. "I’m much more concerned when we only have a two-hour notice."

A bill proposed by Hoffmann would require developers of new coastal developments to pay for warning sirens.

That bill is moving forward and will be heard by the Leeward Planning Commission on Nov. 24, followed by a review by the Windward Planning Commission. Both commissions will make their recommendations to the County Council.

Planning Department Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd said she supports the concept of Bill 291, but balks at private landowners having to bear the entire $85,000 per siren cost.

Leithead-Todd also objects to the siren requirement being placed at the tail end of the development process, and would propose it be done at the front end when a developer applies for rezoning or a special management area permit. She would also require coordination with the state as to the location of the proposed sirens.

"Our proposal purely tried to raise the flag that there are gaps in our coverage, and I want to make sure that in the future we don’t have those gaps and we are adequately covered," Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann said Hualalai, Kukio, Waikoloa Beach and Mauna Lani Beach are areas in his district that are in tsunami inundation zones but lack sirens.

Since neither the state nor the counties are mandated by law to install civil defense sirens, "it’s a prudent thing for counties to think about the need for sirens," said State Civil Defense Telecommunications Branch Chief George Burnett. He said he supports the council proposal for some kind of trigger to require developers to install sirens.

The Big Island is of particular concern because many residential developments, including unincorporated developments, lack adequate infrastructure, he said. In October 2006, a magnitude 6.7 quake and aftershock caused more than $200 million in damage.

Meanwhile, a plan by State Civil Defense to install 51 new sirens on the Big Island could materialize by early next year. Currently, the island has 54.

Burnett said the state is finalizing solicitation to vendors for the sirens, and bids should be awarded by January.

The state plans to build according to the following priority order:

1) Existing sirens in tsunami zones that have fallen or are falling off the pole;
2) New sirens in tsunami zones;
3) Upgrades in non-tsunami zones; and
4) New sirens in non-tsunami zones.

Burnett said the state has already been requiring developers to install sirens. When developers must prepare an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment, it prompts the Office of State Planning and civil defense to check whether there is a need for a siren.

But Burnett noted a smaller development may never rise to the level of an EIS or EA requirement, and may slip through the cracks.


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