Oct. 2006 earthquake’s silver lining: better preparation
Last year's temblors have prompted improvements in dealing with public emergencies.
Individuals and businesses directly harmed can be forgiven if they feel otherwise, but the big earthquake and aftershocks that rattled Hawaii a year ago this week could be considered a blessing for exposing weaknesses in the capabilities of government and key service industries to deal with a major public emergency.
Though more than 1,700 homes and buildings were damaged and more than 100 made uninhabitable, fortunately there was no loss of life and few serious injuries when temblors rocked the islands last Oct. 15.
Scores of homeowners and businesses, particularly on Hawaii island, suffered financial losses and have yet to recover, including a number of churches and historic institutions, and might never be the same. But by and large, many others have regained their footing.
On Oahu, the population and economic center of the state, the event brought to light malfunctions in Hawaiian Electric Co.'s equipment that caused generators to switch off and sequential problems with restarting them.
For most of the day, the island was without power, which cascaded into a breakdown of communication, hampering transmission of information crucial in widespread emergencies. Phone equipment needing electric currents didn't work and cell-phone channels were jammed. Radio and television stations were unable to tell people what was going on. Residents and tourists were left in the dark, but luckily there was little panic.
HECO officials and government agencies both say they have corrected their failures.
The electric company has fixed devices that needlessly shut down generators and is looking for ways to get them back online faster, possibly using its new plant (targeted for completion in about two years) or getting a boost from an independent power company. It also has spread its phone services between two providers to assure its communications.
The state has put together various plans that include dedicated phone lines to emergency broadcast stations, a media information center and generators so airports can function.
Meanwhile, there are still residents and businesses focused on mending. Some who lost their homes, mainly those nearest the quake center, haven't rebuilt, cost being the biggest hurdle. Hawaii County farms and aquaculture operations have yet to have water restored after old ditches collapsed or were blocked by debris. Damaged churches are struggling to raise funds, and temporary bridges and bypasses remain while permanent replacements are mapped out.
All are reminders of the need for government agencies, services and the public to be prepared for the next time.