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Title layout including sattelite pacific hurrican image, Hilo flooding, and community planning group around a table

Facing the Storm

by Mara Johnson-Groh

Since the day it was born out of the Pacific, 65 million years ago, Hawaiʻi has been sculpted by storms, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis. In the 21st century Hawai‘i is facing an increasing frequency of disasters as climate change exacerbates weather patterns and raises the sea level. Over the past few decades, the sea level has already risen by several inches and even if carbon emissions remain the same, conservative estimates suggest a further 3.2 feet of rise by later this century. A 2017 report, the Hawaiʻi Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report, found such a rise would displace 20,000 people and submerge 550 cultural sites. If the state sustains a direct hit from a hurricane, its effects would add to that elevated sea level and the state could suffer $40 billion in losses to infrastructures and the economy.

Community and government organizations are working to put plans into action to make sure the 1.42 million residents of Hawai‘i and the nearly 10 million visitors they host annually are ready for the stormy days to come. But with competing interests and limited budgets, finding the best path forward isn’t always easy.

Before the Storm
Out in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaiʻi is the most remote inhabited place on Earth. This makes disaster recovery particularly challenging. But mitigating natural disasters really begins long before the event occurs.

The focus, and the news coverage, of disasters often comes after they happen. But many studies have shown that pre-disaster planning is the key to mitigation: for every dollar spent beforehand, four dollars are saved long-term. And Hawaiʻi has a lot to gain through preparations. A report published by TetraTech in partnership with the University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program (Hawaiʻi Sea Grant) and others, found a rise of 3.2 feet could result in $19 billion in damages statewide, mostly due to low-lying assets in Honolulu. Key infrastructure, like the Honolulu airport, and the main roads linking much of Oʻahu, were found to be at risk.

A major kickstarting tool for mitigation planning has been the Hawaiʻi Sea Level Rise Viewer, which shows areas vulnerable to hazards worsened by sea-level rise. The online tool, which shows regional economic impacts in addition to areas affected by flooding, has been used by many communities and decision-makers to inform their prioritization plans.

However, risk is not limited to flooding. In 1992, Hurricane Iniki decimated 15,200 homes on Kauaʻi. Wind from hurricanes put an estimated 64 percent of single-family houses at risk on Oʻahu alone, and statewide many residential structures are not up to code: Before 1995, homes weren’t required to have a foundation load path, which keeps the roof connected to the walls in extreme winds. Yet many older houses can be retrofitted. As homeowners take responsibility for wind-proofing their homes, they are not only helping their communities achieve disaster preparedness, but they are also saving money: meeting common code requirements for wind can save ten times the cost of repairing after a storm.

With high rebuilding costs, community input along with scientific modelling can help identify which structures need to be prioritized and which structures should be started afresh, that is, demolished and relocated. As a TetraTech report put it, it is about building back “safer, stronger, smarter.” And knowing what might be coming can also help local governments draft smarter building codes that will be able to withstand climate-change-enhanced storms.

“Preparedness is the lynchpin to resiliency and planning for the future,” said Tara Owens, coastal processes extension agent with Hawaiʻi Sea Grant. “[Climate change] is sort of a slow-moving disaster. It’s happening, but we have time to think and prepare.”

In the meantime, Owens notes, Hawaiʻi will have episodic events with regional and statewide impacts, events that provide the opportunity to rebuild in a more sustainable and resilient way. The work she does in conjunction with Hawaiʻi Sea Grant is helping local governments and communities develop the framework for disaster preparation. Not only are they working to improve government preparations for the small episodes, but also to scale up those plans to be prepared for a big storm.

After the Storm
After any disaster, rebuilding quickly is key. Having community-informed plans in place beforehand is one way to expedite that recovery. Additionally, re-zoning areas that are currently at risk, according to the sea-level rise maps, can also help avert chaos in the aftermath. Re-zoning allows communities to prioritize and gradually address what needs to be done beforehand, instead of having to do all the work post-disaster when groups are more focused on health and safety.

Understanding what infrastructure is at risk during storms is also key to easing recovery afterwards.

“It’s easy to overlook that, in all of these scenarios, our operations are going to be impacted as well,” said Chris Cunningham, Hazard Mitigation & Long-Term Disaster Recovery Program Manager in the City and County of Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency. “So some of the projects focus on ensuring that the city will be able to deliver the services that people are going to need.”

Cunningham’s office is one of the first in the nation to incorporate hazard mitigation with climate change. In many ways, Hawaiʻi is leading the nation in climate change reform. It first recognized the issue of climate change in 1984 and has instigated several action plans over the years, including efforts like the 2018 law to be carbon neutral by 2045. It is the state’s hope that these measures will help protect Hawai‘i in the years to come.

Stronger Together
While Hawai‘i is uniquely vulnerable to climate change, it is also uniquely positioned to deal with the consequences. One thing everyone agrees on is that community involvement needs to be at the heart of any successful disaster planning scenario, and community is one thing Hawai‘i has no shortage of.

During her time working in Maui county in disaster planning under the Peter J. Rappa Sustainable Coastal Development Fellowship through Hawaiʻi Sea Grant, Lea Sabbag noticed how involved community members were in discussions. “Probably one of the most surprising things for me was local engagement in the town meetings I went to. It was heartwarming. There’s so much public participation and engagement [compared to other places],” Sabbag said.

While many of the first assessments and coordination were done on a statewide level, community engagement is increasingly playing a larger role as stakeholders understand its importance. And ultimately, co-producing solutions through community participation is the key for successful mitigation and recovery. Communities, not statewide committees, know best what should be reprioritized for rebuilding before and in the wake of a storm. Only when communities become involved in decision-making (e.g., mitigation plans, re-zoning, re-coding and other hazard mitigation work) will their interests be fully represented. And only then will the end product be most usable and resilient going forward.

While no major storm in recent times has yet devastated the whole state, all islands have already seen increased flooding and beach erosion, which threatens residential homes, cultural resources, and protected natural areas. But those losses are just instigating change for the better, and have the potential to make community bonds stronger and Hawai‘i a more connected, safer, healthier, and resilient place.


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