09/03/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Reality Check on FEMA's Denial of Disaster Declaration


FEMA declined to declare the state a disaster area last week. It is true, but media coverage has misstated what this means, given that FEMA has provided aid already for recovery and given realities of their mission and constraints. We, as a state, need to take a good look at the lessons of Iselle, get some perspective, and get serious about what happens before the next storm. We got schooled in 1992, but the lesson has worn off and we are dangerously soft.

Two days after Iniki, I managed to hop on a relief flight with journalists and FEMA disaster cowboys. Landing in Lihue was like landing in a war zone, military copters buzzing across the tarmac, the huge masts of airfield lighting snapped over like twigs. Walking out of the airport on the parking lot side, hundreds of tourists stood along the entire length of the airport hoping to escape, and the relief flight I rode had been the last plane that would arrive that day. They were stuck, some having evacuated hotel rooms now with no doors or windows and beach sand for carpeting.

I should say that I do have some actual creds in this field, holding a certificate in disaster management from University of Hawaii at Manoa in conjunction with the Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, based at Tripler Army Hospital. I've also been through multiple hurricanes, pulled people out of frozen lakes and done the Heimlich maneuver more than once. Good skills when needed, but not really a lot of fun. What I am about to say may not be popular, but if there is one crucial element in riding out disasters, it is being realistic about what resources exist and how to use them.

Headlines last week made a big deal out of FEMA's denial disaster declaration in the recent Island of Hawaii storm. Yes, there is a big need for help -- I was over there right afterward for a conference at the Volcano Military Camp. Parts of the island are indeed messed up, and assistance is crucial to getting affected areas cleaned up and people's lives back on track. In fact, Hawaii Civil Defense, the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers cooperated with FEMA in response to Iselle (Bonofiglio, 2014). But I was also on Kauai for the Iniki recovery, and the scale is incomparable. I do not mean to minimize the situation of Hawaii Island residents, indeed, I can relate personally. The issue is about the source of aid. We as a state really need to take responsibility for disaster management and be ready. Hawai'i's government is who should be getting grilled on any failure to act more comprehensively.

Kauai at Iniki had about 17,000 houses, and 14,350 had significant damage, with 1,432 being completely blown apart. Around 17,000 telephone poles went down. Damages were estimated at about $1.8 billion (NOAA, 1993). Miraculously, only four people died, but Iniki had sustained winds of at least 135 mph. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA, 1993) cites a range of 130 to 160 mph sustained winds. I was told by a staffer at the Pacific Missile Range Facility that their wind gauge broke in a gust at 232 mph. That was an event that required serious Federal help.

People have a misconception about what FEMA is and does. After Iniki, FEMA indeed helped with some infrastructure repair and gave out some grants, maximum $10k per household, which was minuscule compared to actual repair costs. That's what insurance is for, and the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund was set up subsequently to cover wind-loss and damage, and to protect against default by insurance companies (DHS, n.d.). The HHRF sat there and grew for a long time, then the legislature saw the pile of money and started depleting it (AP, 2011). People had forgotten. For something in the tens of millions, Hawaii is ok. The state could handle hundreds of millions easily if the HHRF were left alone. FEMA is for events with costs in the billions. A Category IV event on Oahu, for instance, would minimally cause $2.3 billion in damage and could easily be in the $20-30 billion range, if not more, and then federal assistance would be crucial. Even then, with conservative lawmakers draining funding from federal programs, FEMA is really not dependable. Ask New Jersey and New York how much fun they have had trying to collect FEMA funds for Sandy, despite Chris Christie being conservatives' favorite governor (Curry, 2013).

If an event of that size hits Oahu, or goes up the entire Hawaiian chain as Iselle nearly did, it will take years of recovery -- look at NOLA and their situation nine years after Katrina. The 2009 FEMA Hawaii Catastrophic Hurricane Operation Plan for a major hurricane event anticipates that about 650,000 residents and 80,000 visitors will be displaced from shelter. In DMHA training seminars, FEMA and Civil Defense officials explained that evacuation of about that number from the islands could be necessary, because in our isolation, current and replacement food and supplies cannot arrive quickly enough. The Federal Emergency Management Act, which established FEMA, authorizes use of Civil Defense and military enforcement to accomplish that, if needed (see Matchette, 1995 for FEMA archive). It is a reasonable plan, for anyone who has seen devastation on a massive scale -- you would not want to be stuck on an island with starving people fighting over food and water like some dystopian sci-fi flick, and that is what it could well be, given that Hawaii typically has only a seven-day supply of food and sits 2,500 miles to the nearest port for resupply (USDA/FSA, 2014).

Until we have another super storm or when the major quake due for Hawai'i island hits, tell your legislators that the HHRF should be protected. In fact, disaster preparedness on multiple fronts should be a high priority for the state, as we face risk of hurricanes, tsunami, earthquakes, drought and fires, and all of the other fun possibilities life on earth presents. If we need FEMA, then sure, they should help, but Hawaii cannot act like a collective ostrich and pretend we do not need to be prepared with funds and supplies for when, not if, serious stuff happens. As we approach elections, there's a great debate topic for candidates.