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Lane stirs up debate about storm preparations

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A woman walks by a boarded up store near Waikiki Beach ahead of Hurricane Lane, Friday.

The narrative on Twitter took two very different paths in the wake of Hurricane Lane.

Some online posters to the social media platform wondered what the weeklong fuss over Lane was all about, noting the minimal impact on Oahu despite dire warnings of potential life-threatening winds.

“Well another day, another hurricane misses Hawaii,” one person commented. “I’m beginning to think these ‘hurricanes’ are a racket run by big meteorology.”

Others expressed relief that Lane spared Oahu but sympathized with residents on the Big Island, where torrential rains caused major flooding. Some spots received more than 40 inches since Wednesday afternoon.

To add to their woes, Big Island residents already were dealing with the destructive forces of Kilauea Volcano’s eruption, which since May has destroyed more than 700 homes.

“Might’ve missed your island,” a woman replied to the racket poster, “but it definitely didn’t miss all of Hawaii … people who lost their homes to lava earlier this year are now losing/in danger of losing relocations to floods.”

The dueling narratives reflected actual conversations people were having throughout Oahu on Saturday after Lane, which was a Category 5 hurricane just on Tuesday, substantially weakened on Friday to a tropical storm and spared the island.

The dueling narratives also highlighted the challenge that government officials and meteorologists will face the next time — and there will be a next time — a major hurricane heads toward the state.

They will sound the warnings again based on the best available science and data. And some residents, remembering what happened with Lane, will remain skeptical and take few precautions.

Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, had this advice for the skeptics.

“It’s not a good idea to second-guess nature,” he said, noting that one day a hurricane is bound to hit the island.

“The cost of preparation is actually small compared with the cost of not preparing.”

Thanks to the effects of climate change, including warmer ocean water temperatures, some researchers believe the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in this part of the Pacific will increase.

Makakilo homeowner Kioni Dudley, whose ridgeline house has floor-to-ceiling windows wrapping around much of its first floor to accentuate ocean views, is familiar with the climate-change research and is convinced a major hurricane eventually will pummel Oahu.

The retired professor and high school teacher thought Lane was going to be the one. Dudley and his wife, Doris, took more precautions last week than for any other storm since they moved to Makakilo in 1979.

They put all their valuables in an interior room, took pictures off the wall for safe keeping, gathered a 14-day supply of food and water, purchased extra gas canisters for a portable stove, stocked extra batteries, checked their radios and stored vital documents in a secure place.

“We really, really thought this was going to rip the house apart,” Dudley said, explaining why he and his wife were planning to ride out the storm at a neighbor’s concrete brick house before Lane abruptly weakened.

But like many other Oahu homeowners who live in exposed hillside communities, including their neighbors, the Dudleys did not board up their windows – despite the warnings of potentially life-threatening winds.

He said they simply had too many, including some in places well off the ground that would be difficult to reach.

“We got really, really serious about (Lane),” he said. “We got 100 percent prepared — except for the windows.”

The dueling online narratives about Lane caught the attention of Amber Silver, an associate professor at the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany, which is part of the State University of New York.

Silver does research on how individuals and groups make decisions before, during and after high-impact weather events, including how social media influences people’s response to warnings.

Silver told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the two types of online responses to Lane — those questioning or mocking the warnings and those more concerned about the damaging effects of the storm — are common in destructive weather events, particularly when the effects are so different based on geography.

The former response is referred to in emergency preparedness circles as the “cry wolf syndrome,” Silver said.

“The next warning, you’re not just as likely to prepare,” she said of the effects from that syndrome.

After Oahu’s history of storm near-misses, the challenge for officials is to get people to take future warnings seriously, according to Silver.

The reality in Hawaii and elsewhere is that there always will be another catastrophic event that will cause loss of life or major property damage, she added.

How to get people to acknowledge that and take necessary precautions — particularly after near-misses — is a difficult proposition. “If I had the answer to that question, I would be a very wealthy woman,” Silver said.

Even friends of Rapoza, the emergency management representative, were asking him Saturday why people were getting so worked up about Lane as it headed toward the islands, particularly given all the storms that bypassed Oahu.

Rapoza said the government warnings need to be based on the situation at hand, including information provided by the storm experts. “We need to be as serious as the worst-case scenarios,” he added.

Hawaii has not suffered widespread destruction from a major hurricane since 1992 when Hurricane Iniki blasted Kauai with 145 mph winds. It caused more than $3 billion in damages and several deaths.

Going about a quarter of a century without a major hit is “good luck,” Rapoza said. “Don’t count on always having good luck.”

Not everyone is buying that, according to the dueling Twitter narratives.

“Hurricane Lane was the biggest scam of 2018,” one commentator wrote.

That prompted this response:

“No it wasn’t. Big island/Hilo got affected with floods. Just b/c it didn’t happen with Oahu etc. doesn’t mean it’s a scam. It’s a blessing it didn’t stay at a category 5. The damage would be catastrophic, houses would (have) been ripped to shreds.”

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