There are inescapable facts of life in Hawaii, including the built-in reliance of an island state on the outside world.
What should be escapable is the degree to which Hawaii is vulnerable, which is something legislators and policy makers must address.
That may be the larger point of the report that was published last week by the state Department of Defense.
It concerns the work of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA), which takes the helm in the state’s response to a range of emergencies, from volcanic eruptions to hurricanes.
But it was the internal failure of communications and protocols within HI-EMA that precipitated this publication. That failure came to light spectacularly in the now-infamous false-alarm ballistic missile alert issued to thousands of Hawaii residents Jan. 13.
The needed focus, on how to make the community more resilient to disaster in an isolated state, is lost in this 36-page, ultimately disappointing document.
The report emerges largely as a wish list for investments that have been long on the radar screen, across the public as well as private sectors.
What’s needed most now is not throwing more money at the problem, which seems to be the aim of the Ige administration’s pitch to lawmakers. What’s needed is direction toward a path of prioritized actions, something that should be provided through the expertise already within HI-EMA.
Nothing of the sort was evident here. Given its title — “All-Hazards Preparedness Improvement Action Plan and Report” — finding this statement on the third page of the executive summary was a head-scratcher: “This report is not a plan, rather the report intends to provide a road map for future actions necessary to make Hawaii’s preparedness actions the model for others who could benefit from the lessons learned.”
So far, the road map the administration is following begins with a request for $800,000 so the state can issue a request for proposals to develop a strategic plan. According to the report updating the state’s All Hazards Catastrophic Plan and reviewing the feasibility of re-instituting fallout shelters could cost an estimated $875,000.
All told, the immediate funding request by Gov. David Ige is about $2 million.
The sequence of events here is wrong. The public would be more willing to invest funds if it has confidence that the underlying structure of the agency is fixed first.
The report does lay out the major areas where structural improvements are needed:
>> A review and assessment of organizational roles and performance should begin immediately, as recommended in the report.
>> Improvements in technological capabilities are needed. The poorly designed alert software application has been Exhibit A in this category.
>> Current statutes and executive orders concerning emergency response must be better enforced. If more controls migrate to federal authorities, as others outside HI-EMA have proposed, this would also be a marked improvement.
>> Develop and deliver training and education programs for all. However, the focus should be on better training for the the agency itself, before attention turns to public outreach.
Even preceding all of this, finding permanent top leadership for HI-EMA is Job 1. Retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, known for authoring a U.S. Army report on detainee abuses at Iraq prisons, has been eyed for this post. Whether or not he is the final pick, strong ties to Hawaii and experience in planning would be essential qualities to seek.
Then the new chief can deploy existing staff and assemble anyone who’s needed to develop a detailed strategy. The Ige administration has not made a persuasive case why an outside consultant is required to handle this task. All the relevant expertise is at hand within HI-EMA or soon should be.
Too often the state, over multiple administrations, has gone to outsourcing as the default. Officials, often enabled by lawmakers who find this approach the easy way out, spend millions on studies that can sit on a shelf, grow dusty and need a do-over in a few years, at additional cost.
The taxpayers long ago have grown weary of this waste. Now would be a good time to look instead to in-house expertise.
Those who develop a strategy will need to work with private-sector authorities — the utilities and the hospitals, for example — who are already working on their known capacity problems.
The foggier elements of the proposed improvements — the construction of a “joint emergency management center,” at a cost of $135 million, whatever that is — can wait in line for years, in the doubtful event it is ever needed.
As state Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, observed, funding long-term infrastructure needs makes sense — improvements to shelters, harbors and such. But $800,000 for a plan is, as Luke rightly said, “kind of a wrong approach.”
To make Hawaii more resilient, HI-EMA needs to reassess, plan and then spend. Taxpayers should demand it happens in that order.