HECO grilled on quake blackout
Legislators charge that lack of communication to the community was a serious failure
Hawaiian Electric Co. appeared to be the "uncaring corporation" in the aftermath of the islandwide power outage triggered by the Oct. 15 Big Island earthquakes, a state Republican lawmaker charged yesterday.
"When you look at your public relations, look at your public communications, I think you've got a real learning curve on how to put a more human face forward to people," Rep. Cynthia Thielen told HECO executives. She was trying to get them to answer criticism on why it took a long time to get information to the public on the blackout that day.
"There is a human approach to this, and you guys were not human," Thielen (R, Kailua) said during a joint hearing before three legislative committees.
HECO officials said they were hampered in disseminating information to radio station KSSK, one of the few stations broadcasting to Oahu listeners that morning, because phone lines to the station were jammed.
It wasn't until a little after 10 a.m. -- nearly three hours after the earthquakes, more than two hours after the outage and 90 minutes after they had information to pass on -- that a HECO representative drove down to the station to deliver the information to give the public.
"The fact that there was not a lot of information in the first hour is not good," Robbie Alm, HECO senior vice president for public affairs, told state legislators.
Alm said HECO would be installing dedicated phone lines to radio stations to prevent the problem in the future.
"We got it that people would like us to talk more, and we're going to do that," Alm told reporters after the hearing.
The exchange came on the second of two days of informational briefings before the state Senate Intergovernmental & Military Affairs and the House Consumer Protection & Commerce and Public Safety & Military Affairs committees, which looked at issues that arose from the response to the earthquakes and outage.
Consumer Protection Chairman Robert Herkes (D, Kau) said the hearings showed that while agencies were able to communicate with each other, communicating with the public was more difficult.
He said he hoped legislation he was drafting would aid in better disaster-response planning. The legislation proposes to create a commission with expertise to plan for disasters.
"We have to have an overall disaster-preparedness plan, and we have to assign that responsibility to some group -- and the makeup and nature of that group and its responsibilities and authority is at this point open," Herkes said.
He said the commission could look at immediate and long-range issues such as beefing up communication and whether land-use regulations should be changed.
Oahu Civil Defense acting Administrator Peter Hirai earlier in the day advocated that new housing developments be required to install sirens and designate emergency shelters.
A new special account funded by about $6 million in interest generated by in the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund would help pay for projects to help the state get better prepared, officials said.