Tuesday, August 17, 1999

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Johnston Atoll workers fleeing Hurricane Dora arrived
at Hickam Air Force Base last night.

evacuees start
arriving in Hawaii

Some Johnston Atoll workers
expect damage if Dora hits, but
say the chemical weapons are safe

By Mary Adamski


Hurricane Dora, packing winds of up to 65 miles per hour, is expected to hit remote Johnston Atoll tonight.

All 1,200 civilian and military workers were airlifted from Johnston Atoll, the site of the Army's chemical weapons disposal plant, to Honolulu last night and today.

Johnston is 825 miles southwest of Honolulu.

Roy Matsuda, National Weather Service forecaster, said Hurricane Dora at 11 this morning was 200 miles east southeast of Johnston, moving west at 18 miles per hour.

At that rate the hurricane should reach the Pacific atoll at 8 tonight, getting within 65 miles south of Johnston Atoll.

Dora seems to be diminishing in wind force. However, the problem could be the strong sea surge, with waves up to 20 feet predicted.

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Evacuees from Johnston Atoll, each allowed one piece of
carry-on luggage, depart Hickam Air Force Base.

The island is seven feet above sea level at its highest point.

Army Major Bruce Foreman, executive officer of the 185-member Army security and support force on the island, was aboard the first planeload of evacuees to land at Hickam Air Force Base last night. An Air Force transport plane was reassigned from Alaska for the first of six emergency flights.

Foreman said officials do not anticipate a threat of contamination to the environment from remaining chemicals on the island even if the storm strikes.

"The facility was designed, built and maintained to withstand tropical storms. It is extremely safe from mishaps."

Foreman said, "The vast majority of chemical has been destroyed" and the one remaining type is JX nerve gas which is stored in earth-covered bunkers, "the safest place to be on the island."

The Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System has not been in operation since last month when the last of the mustard gas was burned, he said. It is in the process of being cleaned and reconfigured for the next disposal project.

Johnston Atoll, 2 miles long and a quarter-mile wide, is one of four islands in the atoll.

The other islands, also small, are a national wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Some evacuees from Johnston Atoll, such as those
overseeing the chemical facility, will remain
on duty; others are looking forward to time off.

Each atoll resident was allowed to bring one piece of carry-on luggage for the emergency departure.

About 80 percent of the workers are civilian employees of government agencies and contractors, the largest of which is Raytheon, which operates the disposal plant.

One of the workers, Shawn Vernon, wore a T-shirt commemorating the 1994 evacuation before Hurricane John, which ripped the roof off a dining hall and demolished several small buildings.

"This is my third evacuation," said Vernon, who has worked since 1989 for UTECH Services, which operates the telephone links. Her first evacuation was in 1993 for a hurricane that didn't materialize.

Vernon used her one piece of luggage to carry computer software from the office and from her personal computer.

"And a change of clothes ... and cigarettes because they're so expensive here."

For some of the civilians, the evacuation will mean rest and recreation. Buses departed from the Hickam hangar to various Waikiki hotels last night where the contractors will pay the tab.

But it would be work as usual for others. J.R. Feagins, site manager for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said he would continue to be on duty as escort for international inspectors from the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons who monitor the plant's operation.

Feagins said he didn't feel the need to bring personal possessions.

"The buildings are pretty sound. I expect to go back and have the place intact."

Jim Nicholson, resident officer in charge of construction for the Naval Facilities and Engineering Command, said, "If it hits, it will tear off roofs and they will become missiles."

Workers under his command moved their excavators, backhoes and other materials down to the far end of the island, "hopefully secure from shrapnel. We started cranking things down three days ago."

One of many Hawaii residents working at Johnston, Francis Peralto of American Marine Corp., said the evacuation will delay their seawall construction project, but "the guys needed a break."

Foreman said that after Hurricane Dora has its way with the island, the first to return will be an Army reconnaissance and reconstitution force. They will determine whether there is significant damage to the water, sewer and power resources.

Damage to the infrastructure would be the most likely delay in the return of the rest of the work force, he said.

Reporter Gregg K. Kakesako contributed to this story.

Star-Bulletin file photo
This photo of a Sooty Tern was taken on Johnston Atoll
last year. The birds nest on three islands that make up the
bird refuge there. Hurricane Dora threatens to wipe out
nests and young birds on the atoll.

Hurricane Dora will
wipe out current
Johnston seabird
reproduction cycle

Hurricane John hit the atoll four
years ago, and the birds recolonized
within days after it passed

By Gregg K. Kakesako


Hurricane Dora is expected to wipe out the current reproductive cycle of the majority of the 150,000 seabirds nestling in the three islands that make up the Johnston Atoll Wildlife Refuge.

Robert Smith, manager of the Pacific Islands ecological services office; and Dave Johnson, project leader of the Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge, spent last week on the remote Pacific atoll, located 825 miles southwest of Honolulu.

"Seabirds there were in various stages of reproduction," Smith said.

"We saw a colony of city terns which had just settled in and had laid eggs," Smith said. "Others had laid eggs and there were chicks walking around."

"The bad news," Smith added, "is that we don't expect survivorship of the young and the eggs."

However, Smith added, "even though we may lose the reproductive cycle of all the seabirds on Johnston, there other refuges that will not be affected by the hurricane and that is why it is important to have a number of these refuges throughout the Pacific."

"Although the hurricane may wipe out bird population on Johnston," Johnson added, "there are other islands in the Northwest Island chain that will compensate for the loss."

Johnston Atoll has been a national bird refuge since 1926 and in 1940 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over the management of the area as a national wildlife refuge -- one of 16 in the Pacific.

The refuge co-exists with the Army's chemical agent disposal site which sits on the largest of the four islands that make up Johnston Atoll.

Only one of the islands -- Johnston which houses the Army facility -- is inhabited.

Nearly four years ago, on Aug. 25 1994, Hurricane John with equally strong winds swept through Johnston, wiping out the bird population then.

"City terns, which make up 80 percent of the bird population on the islands, were hit really hard," Johnson said. "However, they re-colonized within days after the hurricane."

City terns and brown and black noddys lay their eggs on the ground, Johnson said.

The highest point on Johnston Atoll is seven feet and with waves up to 20 feet expected tonight, none of these nests or chicks are expected to survive.

City terns also mate two or three times a year, Smith added, and they are likely to start up again as soon as the hurricane leaves.

Smith said the hurricane also won't kill the adult birds who can fly off the islands and most likely will survive the storm.

"They will hunker down and will survive the hurricane," Smith said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to return to Johnston and evaluate the bird population once the storm is over.

Besides being the home of 22 species of Pacific seabirds, Johnston Atoll also is frequently visited by two of the area's threatened and endangered animals -- the green sea turtle and the Hawaiian Monk Seal.

Johnston Island will become a wildlife sanctuary after the Army leaves next year.

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