You probably didn't notice, but while you were going about your daily business a week ago, a Category 4 hurricane slammed into Hawaii. Virtually.
The annual Makani Pahili hurricane preparedness exercise is coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security's Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program and conducted by the State of Hawaii and all four counties, along with federal agencies, including the armed forces, and nongovernmental organizations. In this year's scenario, the storm hit the Big Island first, at around 3:30 p.m. Monday, June 2. Maui felt its wrath a few hours later, and by 11 p.m. the hurricane had moved on to Oahu, leaving much of our county in shambles.
As a volunteer from the county's Department of Housing and Human Concerns, I had a tiny role in the aftermath of the mock catastrophe, joining an impressively competent team in the Maui Civil Defense Agency's Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Makani Pahili exercise play is serious stuff, not so much a drill as a comprehensive test of our disaster response procedures and problem-solving abilities. Realism is key; participants respond to status reports and service requests as they would in an actual emergency.
I worked the last segment of the three-day exercise, when the focus had shifted from response to recovery. My duties ranged from ordering portable latrines for community shelters to answering county workers' questions about whether their paychecks would be processed on time. Our human services team was also charged with finding long-term housing solutions for over 20,000 Mauians and setting up PODs - points of distribution - for food and water.
It was a fascinating, eye-opening experience. I've spent a fair amount of time in both the Maui and Honolulu EOCs, but never as a participant in the operations.
When Hurricane Iwa hit Hawaii in 1982, I was one of six reporters for Honolulu's all-news radio station, KHVH Newsradio 99. Assigned to cover the city & county's emergency response, I was at a press conference at the EOC in downtown Honolulu while Iwa was battering the island of Kauai. With no telephone service available to file my report, I had to walk to the radio station, about four blocks away from City Hall.
Even on a normal trade wind day, the design of the municipal office building created a wind tunnel at the lobby entrance. On this night, with Iwa's gusts swirling around the structure, I had difficulty just getting the door open. The moment I stepped outside, the wind lifted me several inches above the ground, and I took two or three steps in the air before landing, thankfully, on both feet. If not for the recording equipment bag, heavy on my shoulder, I would probably have sailed into space. Or bounced along the sidewalk like an urban tumbleweed. Fortunately, I cleared the mini-cyclone with my air steps and the rest of the walk was uneventful. And eerie.
Downtown Honolulu was completely dark except for the flicker of flashlights and candles in a few office windows and the occasional headlights of police patrol cars. No one else was on the street and the only sounds came from leaves and debris rustling over the sidewalks and the wind whistling through the concrete jungle. It was eerie yet beautiful, a moment of solitude imposed on the city by Mother Nature.
Iwa was only a Category 1 hurricane. Iniki, 10 years later, was a Category 4 when it hit Kauai. We on Maui were blessed to have weathered both storms relatively untouched. Every time a hurricane watch fizzles out, the very real threat of complacency grows. Nowadays, the general chorus is, "Oh, those things always hit Kauai." We stock up on toilet paper and bottled water, but we don't really expect disaster to strike here.
The folks at Maui Civil Defense and their Makani Pahili partners know better. Last month, the Central Pacific Hurricane Center announced that it expects an above-normal hurricane season this year, with four to seven tropical cyclones likely, compared to four or five in an average season. The odds are rising against us, and we need to be prepared for the inevitable change in luck. From what I observed during my brief shift at the EOC last week, our emergency response system is ready. Are you?
Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. Every household should have an emergency kit and a plan. You can find the Citizens Guide to Disaster Preparedness and other valuable information at the Civil Defense page of the County of Maui's website: www.mauicounty.gov.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.