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On June first every year, the Central Pacific hurricane season officially begins. In anticipation of the heightened threat that it brings to the Hawaiian Islands, government preparedness offices take the opportunity to remind all residents to have an emergency kit that includes at least fourteen days of food, water, medication, and other essential supplies.

In the past, the likelihood of a hurricane making a direct hit on the Hawaiian Islands was rare, but climate change and the northward shift of hurricanes towards the islands have increased the chance of landfall. Other natural disasters can befall our islands, including tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, but none would be as comprehensively destructive as the direct hit of a category 5 hurricane on Oʻahu, where Honolulu Harbor is Hawaiʻi’s lifeline to the ships that deliver 80 to 90 percent of all food consumed in Hawaiʻi. As the most geographically isolated food-import dependent community in the world, the fallout of such an event could be catastrophic.

Hurricane Maria, a category 5 hurricane that made direct landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, provides a very accurate picture of what could happen in Hawaiʻi. Although Puerto Rico’s population of over 3.1 million is more than twice as large as Hawai‘i’s 1.4 million, the result is proportionately the same when comparing basic needs, as Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of the food it consumes.

Hurricane Maria brought heavy rains, wind gusts over 100 miles per hour, and storm surges that reached six to nine feet. It flattened neighborhoods, destroyed the island’s power grid, telecommunications services, and water systems. Approximately 3,000 people died, primarily from the power outage that incapacitated medical life support systems and contaminated drinking water. Eighty percent of the crops were destroyed. People stood in lines for hours to buy what was left of canned and nonperishable food. U.S. Government agencies distributed an inadequate number of meals consisting primarily of highly processed, sugary foods with low nutritional value. Power wasn’t restored for eleven months and in some locations even later. Today, almost three years later, the island and its people still haven’t fully recovered.

Ruperto Chaparro Serrano (Chapa) is the director of the Sea Grant Program at the University of Puerto Rico and was home when Maria hit. He reports that he was without potable water for six weeks, and while he was able to buy water that was air freighted in, other people in more remote areas had to get their water directly from streams, which was often contaminated.

Although it took one month for the seaports to reopen, the airports reopened in a week, and family, friends, and international aid organizations started sending food supplies immediately. The proximity of Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland helped bring supplies faster, yet transportation within the island was difficult because of impassible roads, not due to the shortage of gasoline, all of which must be imported.

Chapa recalls watching the satellite images of Maria heading towards his island. The rest of the world watched as well, as Puerto Rican residents stocked up on nonperishable foods and prepared for a direct hit. Following the storm, the first thing the community did was to come together to share food. Perishable items were consumed first. “The most important factor was people’s response to take care of their own community,” Chapa reports. “People took care of the neighbors who were unable to care for themselves. Everybody was helping each other. That’s part of our culture.”

David Lopez, Critical Systems and Logistics Analyst for the State of Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) paints a very different picture. He studied Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts to help identify weaknesses in Hawaiʻi’s preparedness. “For the first forty days after the hurricane, there were over 700 helicopter airdrops of food and water rations to remote communities,” he says. It does not even begin to address the other recovery and rebuilding efforts that were much slower and are still ongoing.

HI-EMA has mapped out the vulnerabilities, interdependencies, and cascading effects of a catastrophic event as a starting point to making a disaster preparedness plan. The biggest vulnerability is clearly Hawaiʻi’s single-entry point, which is Honolulu’s main harbor. Every day, 400 shipping containers arrive at Honolulu Harbor. All 1.1 million tons of food products that Hawaiʻi imports every year arrive through this port, which breaks down to importing about 3,000 tons of food per day to keep food on grocery store shelves throughout the state. Commercial food stocks are enough to support Hawaiʻi’s population – plus visitors – for five to seven days. There is no alternate harbor in the islands that can unload incoming freight of this magnitude if the port of Honolulu were to close down. Only after the big ships unload their cargo at Honolulu Harbor is it re-distributed to barges that carry cargo to other ports. Rather than being stored in a warehouse, most food items go directly from the port to stores. Shipped goods take an average of four days to arrive from the West Coast. After arrival, it can take up fourteen days to reach markets, both on Oʻahu and on the neighbor islands.

The HI-EMA report finds that it would take nineteen days or longer before the Port of Honolulu could be fully restored in the event of a shutdown. There is little in-state storage available to store an emergency food supply, and little to no coordination between emergency management agencies and the private sector for emergency food distribution. Goods that are stored in warehouses are stored at sea level, which provides no security in the event of a tsunami – or rising sea level, which as we have seen with Superstorm Sandy, can also occur during hurricane or hurricane-like storm events. In fact, all critical systems infrastructure, including Oʻahu’s seaport, refineries, power, and airport are located within the same 12 miles of low-elevation coastline. Yet food shortages would first occur on the neighbor islands with the loss of fuel and interisland transport.

The HI-EMA report concludes with recommendations for a number of strategies and measures that should be undertaken to mitigate disruption in the event of a catastrophe, all of which are long-term solutions, many of them requiring substantial funding for infrastructure enhancement. “It takes a long time to make infrastructure changes,” says Lopez. “The Hawaiʻi State Legislature will have to appropriate billions of dollars to address and correct all the vulnerabilities cited in the HI-EMA report, and for now, commitment of such funding is not a high priority.” Lopez cites progress in developing a working group between government and private parties to increase food storage on the neighbor islands. He also notes that the Hawaiʻi State Department of Transportation is responsible for much of the implementation of the recommendations, especially improving port protection and resiliency.

Food Sovereignty
Reducing risks to food security from natural disasters and climate change has been identified as one of the foremost challenges of the 21st century by the United States Department of Agriculture. Dr. Albie Miles, Assistant Professor in Sustainable Community Food Systems at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu, has done extensive research into food system resilience and emergency food measures on a local level. In addition to infrastructure improvements, he echoes the immediate need for surplus warehousing of emergency food. His policy recommendations include a number of strategies, ranging from the creation of a permanent Hawaiʻi Food Policy Council that would advise key state agencies on food system sustainability, resilience, economic development and public health initiatives, to incorporating and restoring traditional farming practices, aquaculture and fisheries management.

In October, 2012, the Hawaiʻi State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism released a report entitled “Increased Food Security and Food Self-Sufficiency Strategy.” The three objectives identified in the report were to increase demand for locally grown food; increase the production of locally grown food; and provide policy and support to meet food self-sufficiency needs. Four years later, in 2016, prompted by a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress that was held in Hawai‘i, Governor Ige pledged to double local food production by 2030. Notwithstanding government strategies and commitments, the enormous gap between locally produced and imported food hasn’t narrowed, and the percentage of imported food has not decreased since 2012.

Dr. Miles has a different take on the government’s food self-sufficiency strategy. “Even if we increase the amount of food that’s produced here, and there’s some kind of major natural disaster like a hurricane, then a lot of that is just going to end up in the mud.” He points out that food products grown in Hawaiʻi are primarily corn seed, exports, or food products going into local high-end restaurants. “It’s all fine and well that the governor wants to increase local food production but it’s being framed in terms of food self-sufficiency and food security and that is a profoundly misguided perspective because of what we actually grow. Fresh fruits and vegetables are going into our local markets, which some people can afford but some cannot.”

Honolulu was recently one of 100 cities chosen to develop a resilience strategy plan that would address the physical, social, and economic changes of the 21st century. Island leaders from grassroots to government sectors were involved, who in turn sought the participation of over 2,300 Honolulu residents, covering the gamut of geographical, ethnic, gender, and age diversity. The outcome was an “Oʻahu Resilience Strategy” plan that was released in May of 2019.

The study includes 44 action plans, two of which address food security. The first proposes developing urban farming as a way to decrease Oʻahu’s food insecurity and reliance on imports in the face of natural disasters and global energy/commodity price fluctuations. It recommends that government agencies partner with nonprofits to create pilot projects that would support farmers and showcase container farming in the urban core to test the potential to use such methods more broadly on the island.

The second action plan would establish an Oʻahu emergency food supply and storage strategy, similar to recommendations made by HI-EMA and Dr. Miles. A permanent Emergency Feeding Task Force would oversee the implementation of the food supply and storage as well as map out food resources for vulnerable populations. The plan relies on businesses for storage space and educating community members about keeping emergency food supplies.

Joshua Stanbro, the Chief Resilience Officer and Executive Director of the City and County of Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency reports that the plan was adopted by the Honolulu City Council in the fall of 2019. “Our office has some funds to do climate resiliency policy work, but specific actions have not gotten funded, so we don’t have a budget to pull together meetings or do any mapping,” says Stanbro. “This resilience strategy is to highlight things that need to be worked on.”

While the role of the government is to create broad policies and remove barriers to achieving food security and preparedness objectives, actual change ultimately rests with the community. Dr. Miles has been working with stakeholders that include the University of Hawaiʻi, Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiʻi Green Growth, Arizona State University, and MA’O Organic Farms on an initiative to transform Hawaiʻi’s food system by making it sustainable while building in climate change resilience and disaster preparedness. His findings show that notwithstanding the HI-EMA vulnerabilities, “we don’t have much of a resilience plan.”

The “ʻIke ʻAi Consortium on Sustainable Food Systems: Transforming Hawaiʻi’s Food System by 2050” is the name of Dr. Miles’ working group. By 2050, the group envisions a sustainable community-based food system in Hawaiʻi. The group defines a sustainable food system as one that “delivers culturally appropriate food and nutrition for all people at all times in such a way that the social, economic, cultural, and ecological bases of food security, nutrition, and human well-being are sustained and enhanced in perpetuity.” Important components of a sustainable food system, in addition to growing food, include food marketing and processing practices that create more direct links between farmers, consumers, and institutions. In its holistic vision, the consortium also includes the restoration of Hawaiian land and seascapes while providing access to all community members to an adequate, safe, affordable, culturally appropriate, and nutritious diet. Transforming Hawaiʻi’s food systems will require comprehensive research, education, public policy, and community engagement.

Kamuela Enos, a lecturer at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, believes the key to sustainability is found in looking to how the ancestors endured. Before western contact, the Hawaiian Islands were self-sufficient, producing all the food that the population needed not only to survive, but to thrive. In pre-contact Hawaiʻi, 250,000 acres of land produced 1 million metric tons of food annually, enough to feed 86 percent of the islands’ current population. Today, over 900,000 acres of cropland and pasture yield little more than 150,000 metric tons of locally consumed food.

“If we’re hit [by a hurricane], I think it will be bad because of where we are, but if we invest in human capital and resilience, then you have the seeds of people who can adapt and begin to rebuild,” says Enos. “The more we understand how our kupuna lived on these islands, we can also understand that they went through their own changes. Our culture is not just an identity, our culture is a blueprint for re-adaptation. It has technical and spiritual elements to it.”

His work focuses on educating young adults in how to adapt, which includes building academic and economic structures in college degrees and jobs that encourage social enterprises. “The onus is on the community; the more we are able to share out from community organizations and be successful in growing people and growing food, the more opportunity we have to inform policy.”

Dr. Natalie Kurashima, an integrated resources manager for Kamehameha Schools who lives in Kona, on Hawaiʻi Island, is tasked with supporting community-based stewardship of natural and cultural resources. “Climate change, which is already occurring, is going to create a greater frequency and severity in storms in Hawaiʻi, and they will likely hit us more directly and more often,” she warns. “More stress gets put on the global system through climate change, which includes droughts and flooding in other places. All these things are going to affect global food supply, so not getting food as often in Hawaiʻi is a real concern.”

Dr. Kurashima works with different communities on projects in traditional agriculture, marine management, cultural site restoration, land-based research, and forest stewardship. Her studies are more driven by the global and local impact of climate change than the event of a disaster, but developing appropriate agricultural systems are an integral component of what it will take to become food secure. “The reason we import a lot of food,” she says, “is because it’s cheaper to ship things here from thousands of miles away, including lower labor costs, but there could come a time when climate change could cause the price of food to go up.”

Like Drs. Miles and Enos, Dr. Kurashima bases her approach on ancestral practices that are proven agricultural systems and that include biodiversity. Her studies are not focused on re-creating the past; rather she is using traditional knowledge and principles to develop agricultural systems that fit a modern context. Her systems are based on archaeological evidence of pre-colonial use of loʻi, drylands, and agro-forestry.

“There are different kinds of indigenous agricultural systems that are resilient, which allows them to bounce back very quickly in the event of a natural disaster. They are diverse at different scales, so they can be diverse at the landscape level, meaning a patch of forest next to an intensively farmed patch. The farmed patch would be heterogeneous, so there isn’t just one crop, there would be a multi-tiered system of trees, of shrubs, of root crops. Within one crop would be multiple varieties in one area. It’s beneficial because it’s resistant to wind if there are a lot of trees in the system. It’s resistant to drought because there’s leaf litter on the floor from the trees, which retains more soil moisture than bare soil. It’s also more resistant to pests because of the different varieties of plants growing, so disease wouldn’t take out a whole field at once. A lot of indigenous systems are socially resistant as well because people tend to share crops, share varieties, share cuttings. Indigenous systems also incorporate native species which have conservation value, preserve biodiversity, and which are super important for our overall [ecosystem and] island resilience.”

An important attribute of practicing traditional agriculture methods is the connection of people to place, regardless of what foods are being grown. Restoring indigenous agricultural techniques requires drawing upon traditional knowledge and principals to develop systems that are appropriate to today’s context. “There are spiritual values in understanding that the ‘āina is what’s feeding us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the crops have to be indigenous,” says Dr. Kurashima. MAʻO Farms, a 23-acre certified organic farm located on the west side of Oʻahu, in Waiʻanae, is an example of growing modern crops in an indigenous way. “There are a lot of communities that are growing crops in a way that involves mind, body, and spirit.”

There is no question that Hawaiʻi is ill-prepared to respond to a natural disaster if one were to hit today. There are many facets to achieving food security, which will require the commitment and participation of everyone from government leaders to business owners to community members. Dr. Miles sums it up: “There needs to be a balance of local food production and consumption being coupled to global commodity change, increasing the amount of in-state storage, encouraging people to store food in their house, articulating the emergency management agencies with local food distributors, all those things together bring resilience in the food system.” As the likelihood of a natural disaster making a direct hit on the Hawaiian Islands grows, the least that we as individuals can do is to make sure that we have followed the emergency preparedness guidelines to have our own fourteen-day supply of food, water, medication, and other essential supplies.


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