Failure to communicate did not follow big quake
A PERSISTENT but wholly inaccurate complaint concerning the response of State Civil Defense to the Oct. 15 Kiholo Bay earthquake is still being urged upon members of the news media and some state lawmakers.
The complaint by Doug Carlson ("Gathering Place," Star-Bulletin, Feb. 19) incorrectly claims that "communications failures" followed the earthquake. The ability of State Civil Defense to inform the public that the earthquake had not generated a tsunami was hampered by the loss of the electric power grid, which shut down most news outlets. This was an information delay, not a failure, and it was thoroughly reported in the news media.
A second inaccuracy in Carlson's column is that there was no public representation on the Governor's Comprehensive Communications Review Committee. In fact, the committee, which was appointed for the purpose of improving communications with the public in a disaster or crisis, had 85 members from private businesses or organizations, including nearly every print, TV and radio news outlet statewide. Only 25 participants were from government offices -- county, state and federal.
This fact also counters another of the story's allegations, namely that the public had no input in the decision making about how to improve disaster communications. In the several Disaster Assistance Recovery Centers set up on the Big Island, Maui and Oahu following the earthquake, hundreds of members of the general public met and talked with officials from State Civil Defense, who were rarely asked about the delays in communicating with the public immediately after the earthquake. The same is true of the numerous public gatherings, ranging from legislative briefings to neighborhood board meetings, attended by State Civil Defense leaders, myself included.
Carlson's last charge is most erroneous and offensive. He claims that "State Civil Defense officials have not briefed the public on what they are doing to improve their communications capabilities." We have responded to media inquiries, briefed lawmakers and members of the general public, and answered phone calls and e-mails on this subject. Additionally, the Governor's Comprehensive Communications Review Committee report was released to the public on Jan. 5. Its 15 key recommendations prompted widespread coverage by the news media.
Efforts to strengthen emergency communications began almost immediately after the earthquake. One example involves a technical change developed by Civil Defense and supported by broadcasters, which was successfully tested during the earthquake aftershock Thanksgiving Day. Radio and TV stations agreed to program their Emergency Alert System receivers to allow civil emergency messages to interrupt programming. Using this message code, it was possible to inform people across the state within minutes following the aftershock that no tsunami had been generated.
Frankly, I don't understand the purpose of the negative, misdirected attention that Carlson has focused on State Civil Defense. We, along with the county civil defense agencies, the governor's tourism liaison, state Department of Transportation, other state, county and federal agencies, as well as private sector organizations that responded to the earthquake, have been open and honest about what we need to improve. And, as always, we welcome the public's comments and suggestions.
Major Gen. Robert G.F. Lee is Hawaii's adjutant general and the director of State Civil Defense.