RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Virginia Graham stands outside her home being built in North Kohala. Her home was destroyed by last year's earthquake, and she has been living in small buildings on her property while she awaits her new home to be built. The new home is smaller, and has been set back from where the old house once stood.
The pain remains: Big Island earthquake -- one year later
Agencies improve to minimize disruptions in future quakes
First of five parts
The powerful earthquake of October 2006 left thousands of people in the dark -- literally and figuratively.
Coming This Week
Tomorrow: An update on the status of several damaged churches, like Kalahikiola church in North Kohala (pictured above), on the Big Island.
Tuesday: What scientists have learned about the mechanics of the quake.
Wednesday: The earthquake's effect on agriculture and an update on the ditch systems that service several farms.
Thursday: The steps HECO has taken to prevent another island-wide power outage like the one experienced on Oahu. Also, a look at improvements to roads, bridges and other public facilities on the Big Island.
The lights blinked out as a power outage swept across Oahu. And with electricity out to many radio and television stations, residents were left to stew in their own ignorance about what was going on.
As the anniversary of the disaster approaches, government agencies yesterday assured the public that measures have been taken to minimize those problems when the next quake hits.
Much of the work involves installing emergency generators so radio stations and other critical operations can remain in operation.
"We believe today that the public can have confidence in communications during an emergency," said Lenny Klompus, the governor's communications director, at a news conference involving top state officials at the Governor's Office.
At Honolulu Airport, where 5,000 travelers were left stranded, the state is leasing portable generators that bring it up to 66 percent capability, enough to operate at near-normal conditions, said Brian Sekiguchi, deputy transportation director. Neighbor island airports are capable with 100-percent backup power except for Kona, which is going through modernization development right now, Sekiguchi said.
Meanwhile, many homes remain damaged and the 310-room Mauna Kea Beach Hotel remains closed.
Most of the isles’ power grids and airports can come online quickly
To the 5,000 travelers stuck at the Honolulu airport after last year's quake, state officials offered assurances yesterday that it shouldn't happen again.
Gov. Linda Lingle's top administrators outlined improvements made as a result of last year's Oct. 15 earthquake, which crippled Oahu's communications, transportation system and power grids.
Lingle's communications review committee, formed days after the quake, finalized its report, making recommendations and noting improvements already made since.
Staying in touch
A look at some of the key recommendations for improving emergency communications in the state, as determined by the Governor's Comprehensive Communications Review Committee:
» Update Hawaii Emergency Alert System Plan.
» Establish media/joint information center at Diamond Head crater.
» Install dedicated phone lines to Civil Defense broadcast stations.
» Provide frequent media updates during emergencies, targeting every 30 minutes.
» Have TV and radio automatically transmit civil emergency messages using the Emergency Alert System.
» Dedicate State Civil Defense Web site for the media to receive updates online.
» Utilize cell phone text messaging.
» Use electronic message signs on freeways.
» Public awareness and training.
» Translate emergency messages into various foreign languages.
» State Civil Defense www.scd.state.hi.us
"We believe today that the public can have confidence in communications during an emergency," said Lenny Klompus, the governor's communications director, at a news conference at the Governor's Office.
For example, last year Honolulu Airport had backup generators that sustained only about 10 percent of its operations -- airfield lights, emergency response units and communications.
"In the past, the philosophy has been to wait out the power outage," said Brian Sekiguchi, deputy director of the state Department of Transportation.
But because of recent security concerns, the outage highlighted the need for more backup power. As a short-term solution, the airport is leasing portable generators that can bring it up to 66 percent capability, enough to operate at near-normal conditions but without amenities like air conditioning.
Hawaiian Electric Co. has been working with airport officials in developing a joint-use diesel generating power plant that would juice the airport up to near-full capacity. It's expected to be completed by 2009.
Neighbor island airports are capable with 100-percent backup power except for Kona, which is being modernized now, Sekiguchi said.
"In our minds, you couldn't put a price tag on leaving the traveling public in a situation they experienced on Oct. 15," Sekiguchi said.
As for the rest of the island, HECO has replaced the safety relays, which could falsely lock out the generators. The vibrations last year caused those relays to lock out.
HECO spokesman Darren Pai also said the generating unit at Campbell Industrial Park will have "black start" capability, which speeds up the generating process from a complete blackout.
For the older steam units, it could take more than four hours to restart a generator. The combustion turbine generating units HECO is planning to build could start up within an hour. Pai said an earthquake with the same conditions as last year's should not be able to knock out power again.
"But there are so many things that could cause an islandwide outage," Pai said. "However, we feel confident we've addressed the issues that existed last year."
Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, who heads the state's Civil Defense agency, said $18 million in FEMA funds is spread over 759 projects, with another 21 projects pending.
Lee also said the state worked with KZOO and KNDI in translating emergency broadcast messages in several languages to service more than 200,000 non-English speaking Hawaii residents.
A continuing sticking point in recovery efforts is repairing the water irrigation systems on the Big Island. For example, restoration of access trials and replacing a concrete ditch section for the Waimea irrigation system is ongoing.
"We still face challenges, but we know what the end state will be," Lee said.
Since last year's Oct. 15 earthquake, $33.8 million has been spent on emergency and permanent repairs to state highways on the Big Island and Maui, $31 million of which came from federal emergency funds.
» $2.4 million: Resurfacing all damaged roads, including shoulder and pavement repairs and sealing cracks.
» $6.3 million: Clearing rockfall and landslide debris from highways.
» $860,000: Repairing the Honokoa Bridge.
» $6.1 million: Providing a temporary bypass road at Kawailii Bridge on the Hamakua coast.
Media, utilities, state plan for disaster
Since last year's earthquake and powerful aftershock off the Kohala Coast, one of the key steps being taken by government agencies, utilities, businesses and private citizens is securing backup power.
For the most part, that means emergency generators being set in place to ensure that communications do not go down along with the power -- as many did in the hours following the Oct. 15 temblors.
But all of those generators -- whether being used to power a radio station or to provide electricity to a business so computers and phones can work -- need fuel.
By the numbers
Homes and buildings still needing repairs
Homes inspected by Hawaii County Public Works Department after Oct. 15, 2006
Total homes and buildings destroyed
Homes and buildings given green tags indicating minor damage
Homes and buildings given yellow tags meaning occupancy was restricted
Yellow-tagged homes and buildings still not repaired
Homes and buildings given red tags indicating they are not safe for occupancy
Red-tagged homes still not repaired
"If we have a lengthy power outage, they don't have an unlimited supply," said Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, director of state Civil Defense. "We need to get fuel to them.
"We identified a need. At least for me, I don't think it was adequately addressed in the (emergency preparedness) plan and now it is -- the need for fuel for backup generators."
Issues such as this have occupied Lee and about 40 other representatives from various sectors of the economy over the past year.
The Governor's Comprehensive Communications Review Committee, which consists of television, radio and newspaper representatives, wireless service providers, utility companies and various state agencies, was formed within days of the quake to assess the preparedness of communications systems statewide and determine what could be done to prevent a recurrence of what happened a year ago.
On the day of the quake -- a magnitude 6.7 quake followed minutes later by a 6.0 aftershock -- power outages lasted only a few hours on most neighbor islands, but as long as 20 hours in some parts of Oahu.
Most businesses went dark -- including several radio and television stations -- making it harder for government officials to get key information broadcast to the public, including the fact that no tsunami had been generated.
"On the military side, we could talk to each other," Lee said. "The poor public was left out in the cold."
Members also sought ways to keep visitors -- particularly those who don't speak English as their primary language -- better informed.
"We've put a lot of effort into getting the information to all of the various ethnic radio stations," said Marsha Wienert, the state's tourism liaison and a co-chairwoman of the governor's committee.
Those steps included providing scripts for emergency messages to various radio outlets, allowing them to get the messages translated for their target audiences.
Wienert said authorities also learned that cell phone text messaging was highly efficient, and could be used in the future to broadcast messages to the general public.
Lee said text messaging of emergency broadcast alerts was tested to a small degree during preparations for Hurricane Flossie in August.
"It's not at the stage where we want it to be yet," Lee said. "We're working with the FCC and the cell phone companies. That is certainly a key area we need to pursue."
Other fixes to improve communication include state agencies installing land lines and phones that do not require electrical power at key sites and setting up a media information center at Civil Defense headquarters at Diamond Head Crater to assist media in getting information to the public.
Lee said the emergency preparedness plan for communications was ready during the run-up to Flossie, which ultimately missed the state.
"The people knew what was happening and what to prepare for, especially for the people on the Big Island," Lee said.