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FEMA already on the ground with food, water and supplies

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Brock Long:

He is administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency

What the federal government learned from Maria is helping guide its response to Lane.

And Hawaii residents could be the beneficiaries.

Brock Long, administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday that his agency has made a lot of changes in the way it is responding to Hurricane Lane based on the lessons learned in Puerto Rico last year.

FEMA was widely criticized for its response in September to Hurricane Maria, which killed at least 1,200 people in the U.S. territory. One study said the fatality count could be more than 4,000. The storm knocked out Puerto Rico’s power grid for months, and efforts to get food and other supplies to isolated communities were heavily criticized.

At a Washington, D.C., briefing, Long told reporters his agency is “hyper-focused” on ensuring that food, water and other commodities get to Hawaii’s people as quickly as possible in Lane’s aftermath. He said FEMA and its other partners are working closely with private-sector entities, including supermarket chains and food wholesalers, to ensure that happens.

In Puerto Rico “many of the grocery store chains actually had preparable food capacity that we just didn’t tap into and we should’ve,” Long said. “We’ve learned that lesson.”

Long said he understands that Hawaii’s grocers and food wholesalers have four to five days of food on the island on any given day, and to supplement that the federal government has brought in an additional five- to seven-day supply of food and other commodities.

The federal supplies are stored at warehouses on the four main Hawaii islands.

The goal, Long said, is to have enough commodities to sustain the islands until more can be brought in, Long said.

That will depend on how much damage Hawaii’s transportation network, including harbors and airports, sustains and how quickly such facilities can be brought back online, official said.

The uncertainty about the timing of getting everything back online is a major reason residents have been advised to have a 14-day supply of food and water in their homes.

How quickly the power grids on the islands can be restored is another important factor, and Long noted a key difference between Puerto Rico and Hawaii is that the latter’s power system is well maintained.

Federal agencies have about 300 extra personnel in Hawaii to help with the Lane response, including about 250 who were already here to assist with responses to the Big Island’s Kilauea Volcano eruption, which started in May, and the April flooding on Kauai, according to William Roche, deputy administrator for FEMA’s Region 9, which includes Hawaii.

In addition to the food and supplies already here, ships loaded with cargo are en route to Hawaii or waiting in offshore waters until the harbors reopen, according to Adjutant Gen. Joe Logan of the state Department of Defense.

If Honolulu’s main harbor suffers damage and ships can’t be offloaded there, other options are available, including diverting ships to Pearl Harbor if that is available or to a neighbor island harbor, according to Roche and Logan.

“The likelihood of every port being hit at the same level is low,” Roche said.

The state has a crane at Pearl Harbor that can be used to offload cargo, though at a much slower pace than what would happen normally at Honolulu Harbor, Logan said.

Yet another option would be to request that a portable crane be shipped here from California — a process that would take about a week — and that crane can be used as a sea-based one, offloading ships outside a damaged harbor, the officials said.

That process also would take much longer than the normal process, they said.

One thing FEMA learned from Puerto Rico was the importance of having generators ready to assist hospitals and water systems get back online, according to Long. The agency has brought nearly 100 generators to the islands.

Based on the Puerto Rico experience, FEMA is concentrating on several areas it calls “critical lifelines”: health and safety; food and shelter; power and fuel; communications; transportation; security; and hazardous waste, according to Long.

“We realized that if any one of those lifelines goes down, then life safety is in jeopardy,” he said.

One of the biggest lessons, he added, is that the ability to communicate is critical, and that the federal government must work with private-sector partners to restore communications while also concentrating on restoring food and water supplies.

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