What If A Katrina Hit Honolulu?

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - September 07, 2005
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I must admit, as the ominous-looking red swirl of hurricane Katrina inched northward on the map toward New Orleans, I still thought the CNN coverage was oversensationalizing the potential impact of the storm.

It has turned out, however, both CNN and I were wrong. But I was more wrong. The devastation is far worse than even CNN had foretold.

The natural and appropriate response for most of us here in Hawaii is What if? What if that same storm hit Oahu? But really more appropriate than what if is when?

Kauai’s Iniki gave us a small scale preview of what to expect from a major hurricane hit on Oahu - coastal devastation from the high winds and the storm surge off the ocean, and some flooding from that same surge and heavy rains.

But widespread, long-term flooding such as in New Orleans would be unlikely. And even though it was far from obvious from the video images in the Crescent City and along the entire Gulf Coast, preparation is indeed the obvious key to survival.

Fortunately for us in Hawaii, hurricane preparation legislation passed this past legislative session has helped immensely. More than $4 million (drawn inappropriately from the Hurricane Recovery Special Fund) have been earmarked for three major areas: 1) State tax credits for homeowners who take specific steps to fortify their homes with hurricane clips and tie downs, and/or the preparation of a “safe room” in their homes. 2) Upgrading the integrity of public schools or other buildings designated as hurricane shelters; securely locking doors, heavy mesh screens over windows, sanitation facilities, etc. 3) Past-due funding for a 24/7 “watch officer” for the state Civil Defense Command Post in Diamond Head Crater - all the more important now that terrorism alerts can occur simultaneous to natural disaster alerts.

Safe rooms - an appropriate new addition to the tax credit list - ideally should be an interior room/s on the lowest level of the house and, with the addition of plastic sheeting and duct tape (no snickering!) double as a shelter from nuclear/biological/chemical agents as well. No personal preparation is complete without first checking Federal Emergency Management Agency’s comprehensive web site, http://www.fema.gov.

One very poignant lesson from the fallout from Katrina is knowing the location of designated shelters. Our Verizon phonebooks provide invaluable Civil Defense guidance, and designates shelters - almost exclusively school buildings - for evacuees from tsunami flood plains. However, hurricane shelters require entirely different, more stringent specifications, and are not designated in the phone-book. They should be, however, and that’s a priority issue to be addressed by our state Civil Defense Agency, especially as new upgraded shelters come online. Everyone should know ahead of time the designated shelter for their neighborhood, and the location and contents of their survival kit and other items to take to the shelter. Again, the FEMA web site is invaluable on this.

Family pets pose a dilemma. Some Katrina survivors said they didn’t go to shelters because their dog wasn’t allowed. I can relate to that. If that’s the case for you and your family, it speaks even more strongly for a “safe room” in your home with arrangements to accommodate your pets.

Even though Hawaii can be proud of a well honed, professional, can-do, emergency management team, when the “big one” hits Oahu, electrical, water, fuel, transportation, sanitation and emergency services may not be available for as long as a week or more. If our airport and seaport facilities are decimated, outside help could be a long time coming. Katrina has provided a powerful wakeup call for all of us to be responsible for our own well-being and survival in a terrorist strike or natural disaster. Preparation and foreknowledge are the foundation for mental well-being and confidence under duress, and will make us more capable of helping those around us who may be incapacitated or in need, no matter how well they had prepared.

When that future CNN hurricane news team reports from Honolulu, we should give them nothing to recall the lost, confused souls wandering the fetid waters of the Big Easy in the wake of Katrina.

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