New guidelines may already be too short for how long you should be prepared to be self-sufficient after an emergency like a hurricane.
And a severe shortage in public shelter space has no quick solution on the horizon.
After seeing what havoc the Atlantic hurricane season wrought from Texas to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, Always Investigating has dug deeper into just how ready Hawaii is for a big emergency here. We’ve learned the state is keenly aware the answer is “short or nowhere near” in some cases.
This Pacific hurricane season kicked off in June with a big revision of how long your emergency supplies should last your family, when the state doubled the guidance from seven to 14 days.
Then Atlantic hurricanes packed punch after punch from which islands like Puerto Rico are still recovering.
Always Investigating asked, is two weeks preparation enough?
“Well, right now we’re looking at that,” said Vern Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HiEMA). “The last time we talked, it was seven days, and then we were talking about two weeks because it would take a long time for the port to reopen. We’ll keep on tracking that, and we may be putting something out next year.”
Miyagi says any revision will be announced before the next hurricane season.
“What I’m noticing,” Miyagi said, “is that if you were to ask me how many people have 14 days, it’s not going to be 100 percent.”
Also nowhere near 100 percent is the amount of shelter space that would be needed to house the nearly one-third of Hawaii’s population that the latest FEMA Hawaii Catastrophic Hurricane Plan says would be seeking shelter.
The plan estimates 420,000 people would seek shelter, and just 50 individual buildings at public schools statewide are on the current shelter roster.
“There is a shelter gap,” Miyagi said. “What’s happened in the past is the population for all of the counties has increased. We have a big tourist population, and at the same time, building codes have pretty much stayed the same.”
Miyagi said HiEMA thinks the number is more like 200,000 people likely to seek shelter, and is in the midst of reassessing.
“What we’re doing right now is updating that study to get a better idea of what the actual demand is,” Miyagi said. “When Hurricane Iniki happened, 35 percent of the population were not in shelters. They wanted to stay home and take care of the homes, so we have to make that adjustment to come up with a better computation.”
Even without the recount, there are still way more people than public shelter space.
We wanted the list of all the shelters, but had to push to get the ranking of what kinds of winds each could take. The vast majority of shelters, all at public schools, are at campuses that average 60 years old, in just one or a few school buildings that at most can withstand a category 1 storm.
All of the listed school shelters on Kauai — the only island hit head-on by a strong hurricane in decades — can only take a Category 1. All of Oahu is also Category 1.
A couple of shelters on Maui and one on Hawaii Island can take a Category 2. And just one, Hilo High, is rated a Category 3.
There are none inventoried for Category 4.
The list was changing right up until our story aired, with the HiEMA realizing after our questions that Ilima Intermediate’s Building I, submitted originally to us as a Category 3 shelter, was a mistake. It’s really a Category 1.
HiEMA’s explanation: “The building was originally classified as a Category 3 because the engineering assessment stated the overall structural capacities including the building diaphragm, walls, frame and roof all meet a type 3 rating. In looking at the report there were two vulnerabilities listed that should be addressed before it is technically given a full Category 3 rating, which is the reason for the change. Those include securing some roll-up doors and glazing the awning windows. These notes account for the rating adjustment, though the building remains suitable for hurricane sheltering.”
Hilo High’s Building J got bumped down from Category 4 due to wind rating changes since its design.
HiEMA’s explanation: “Because this shelter was built using mitigation funds outside of the normal retrofit program, we had to do some research. We discovered that it actually should be listed as a Category 3 shelter based on current state hurricane shelter guidelines. The reason for this is a change in the state’s hurricane shelter guidelines that occurred since the time it was designed. The shelter was designed in 2011 to withstand winds up to 115 mph. Under the state’s guidelines published 12/2005, which were in effect at the time of the building’s design, it qualified as a category 4. In 2014, the state issued updated guidelines. Under the 2014 guidelines wind speeds of 115 mph only qualify as a Category 3 shelter. Apparently we did not re-evaluate this building when the update was made. It should be reclassified to category 3 and we have adjusted our database.”
2005 Hurricane Rating Guidelines:
2014 Hurricane Rating Guidelines:
“As far as the shelter criteria to qualify for Cat 1, Cat 2, Cat 3, Cat 4 shelter have changed over the years, it’s become more difficult to get those certifications,” Miyagi said, “so the focus right now is because we have the shelter shortage, we have to focus on shelter-in-place.”
That means in your place, or with a family or friend willing to take you in.
“Each member of the public has to get an idea of where they live,” Miyagi said. “If they live in a concrete apartment building, they’re pretty good, but make that assessment ahead of time. Where am I going to go, what am I going to do, and when am I going to do it, all ahead of time.”
The state is also looking at how to support hotels by reducing liability if they agree to provide shelter. Covering the hundreds of thousands of residents in the gap, and about 100,000 visitors in the islands on any given day, still comes down to growing and retrofitting safer homes and apartments.
“The point is that what Florida does, they grow shelters with updated building codes,” Miyagi said. “When you build homes, you have safe rooms incorporated in that they have stronger code as far as building individual residences.”
Honolulu is still working off a now-11-year-old building code, a 2006 version of the International Building Code (IBC). Always Investigating asked the state Building Code Council and Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting what’s on the horizon, and they said they’re in the process of preparing an ordinance to adopt a newer IBC that has provisions for a safe room, and requirements to withstand stronger winds.
Read More: What is a safe room?
“The City and County of Honolulu is in the process of preparing an ordinance to amend the current building code to adopt the 2012 International Building Code. Contained within are provisions for a safe room and other amendments approved by the Hawaii State Building Code Council,” explained Tim Hiu, Honolulu DPP deputy director. “There will be increased wind design provisions to address high wind forces for new construction. Honolulu is currently enforcing the requirements of the 2006 International Building Code. Once this process is completed, the city will be evaluating the 2018 International Building Code as the next update.”
Meanwhile the state is taking a new inventory of more recently built public school shelters not yet on the official list.
“We were looking at schools like Hookele, which was a brand-new build. There are facilities on that campus. It just hasn’t made that list,” explained Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent at the Hawaii Department of Education. “We’re trying to increase our inventory of shelters so when we do build new, we will build with the idea somewhere on this campus we need to provide space. Again, not every building on the campus may be up to that, but I want to say at least Category 3, in some cases Category 4.”
A structural engineer must review the storm-readiness of each building.
“We bring the professionals in to make sure the places we are going to put people are the safest places on campus,” Carlson said.
More shelters means a need for more volunteer staff. Miyagi says that’s another shortage they’re working with the Red Cross to resolve.
State planners say they are a bit relieved to see their studies seem right so far about focusing on reopening ports, and they took quick notes again from Puerto Rico to refine plans in that category.
“I think the port was open in a few days, but supplies were stuck at the port,” Miyagi said of Puerto Rico’s storm aftermath. “There were some issues with the number of drivers, bringing in drivers from outside with union issues. We don’t have that. We have sufficient resources to take over. The other thing is we have resources from the outer islands if Oahu gets hit. We have an added resource here which is active-duty military.”
Hawaii also benefits from an arrangement called EMAC, Emergency Management Assistance Compact, that helps get mainland resources, like other major power company staff, to quickly deploy to help get the lights back on after a storm.
“Tropical Storm Iselle hit the Big Island in Pahoa (in August 2014), we had mutual aid teams from the continental United States to come out here and help with the power,” Miyagi said. “That’s why it went up so rapidly in three or four days.”
Compare that with six weeks and counting in Puerto Rico, with most still lacking restored power there.
Always Investigating asked Hawaiian Electric what lessons were learned from Puerto Rico, and would Hawaii be different?
“I think we definitely would be different,” said Scott Seu, senior vice president of public affairs at HECO. “We have invested a lot in our own electric system in terms of strengthening and hardening some of the critical facilities that we have. We certainly would rely heavily on tapping the resources available to us coming from the mainland. We also spend a lot of time here in Hawaii conducting storm exercises.”
Always Investigating asked HECO, what is the estimate for how quickly power would be back on for the island in a worst-case scenario?
“I can’t really give you a specific estimate because it really will depend on what the damage is,” Seu said. “We have our power plants on the island. We have our transmission system, which are the big electric poles and the wires especially the ones you see go across the island. If we are able to protect that backbone, we will be able to restore power to the island much quicker. It would not be on the order of months.”
Seu said the distribution lines neighborhood by neighborhood may vary from there, with the biggest foe not the wind, but the trees.
“You need to invest in maintaining trees and vegetation away from power lines,” Seu said. “You’ll be amazed. That’s one of the number-one contributors to many of the outages we have just because things are blowing into the lines.”
The newest HECO power plant is set to open in the spring near Schofield Barracks, the first inland plant as most Oahu facilities are at or near the coast. Coastal generating locations are something HECO is taking into account now and in the future for things like storm inundation, tsunami, and climate change.
“Even our existing power stations that are on the coast, we have our critical equipment that’s actually at a higher elevation,” Seu said, “but on the longer trend, we’ll be considering sea-level rise. We’ll be considering the impacts of more frequent storms, certainly. No matter what us human beings will try to do to protect our buildings and facilities, Mother Nature will often times throw those plans out of whack.”
Always Investigating will follow up as HiEMA completes its reassessment of storm shelter population estimates, and as the DOE and HiEMA take an updated inventory of any new buildings that qualify as shelters and at what storm category rating for each.