The relief felt throughout the islands was enormous once the threat of a direct hit from Hurricane Douglas unexpectedly lifted. Most residents, from the governor to the families frantically boarding up windows and clearing out streams near their homes, thought for certain this storm would not pass them by.
Unpleasant as that tension was, it would be best if Hawaii could bottle it up somehow, and apply that energy toward making the state more resilient. The natural disasters come more frequently in this age of climate change, and there will be a “next time” that won’t simply blow over.
In addition to the Category 1 winds, rain and wave surge, there was a fourth threat: COVID-19. The ongoing pandemic constrained the usual evacuation orders. If it’s at all safe to do so, authorities said, sheltering at home was the best option.
The imperative to keep people from congregating in tight quarters led officials to curb the capacity of available shelters. This affected those living on the windward coasts, especially on Oahu, where it’s fairly populous in the flood zones all along Kamehameha Highway.
Pandemic fears probably kept some people at home who should have evacuated. But an added disincentive was that shelters were some distance away, and not all of them “hardened” to withstand hurricane-force winds.
Oahu’s North Shore communities have long sought development of a regional shelter. With the city’s recent emphasis on building resilience from climate change, there’s been some movement in the right direction. Community leaders cited $2.75 million in the city’s budget to get a new building that could serve as an emergency shelter, rightly urging that Mayor Kirk Caldwell release the funds.
Given the dire state of state and county budgets in a post-pandemic economy, however, a completed project is not going to come online for some time. State and county authorities must review the condition and inventory of inland sheltering structures and make strategic upgrades to help them stand up better to storm forces.
The hurricane also compels a thorough re-examination of the coastal highways serving the hard-hit shoreline communities of Oahu and Kauai.
Thankfully Kauai escaped another assault on its just-repaired Kuhio Highway, but even the limited wave surge caused problems on north Oahu’s two-lane road. Imagine what a real strike would have made of crumbling Kamehameha Highway, stranding residents there for a prolonged stretch. Reinforcing that corridor remains a priority for the state.
In addition, Gov. David Ige noted the shortage of volunteers to staff the shelters that opened Sunday. Many of those workers are older adults who are more vulnerable to coronavirus infections, a likely factor in a 70% drop in volunteers reported by the Red Cross.
Volunteerism is yet another resource that is in short supply for the COVID age, so there should be a call put out to younger members of the workforce who are able to step up and help.
On the positive side of the Hurricane Douglas experience must be entered a calm and coordinated effort at public communications and logistics.
The federal government came through in timely fashion with President Donald Trump issuing an emergency proclamation as the storm approached. And Hawaii does benefit from a closely linked network of local, state and federal agencies at times like these.
But this state can’t afford to relax. Over the weekend there was split-screen viewing of Douglas and Hurricane Hanna, which brought real damage to southern Texas. Hawaii’s side of the screen could look like that for the next storm — and its leaders must continue working hard to be ready.