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Caution helped guide storm-wary officials


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POSTED: Sunday, February 01, 2009

Since Friday, Jan. 16, when the threat of damaging winds prompted the closing of schools in three counties, and the release of non-disaster-response state workers, we at State Civil Defense have heard a range of comments. Because the storm slowed and weakened as it made landfall, some people raised questions regarding the decisions to keep government workers and students home.

Bear in mind, the storm was a growing threat at 3 p.m. the day before, when members of our Civil Defense team gathered in the State Emergency Operating Center conference room. We were linked by telephone and video conferencing equipment with the county EOCs, other government emergency response agencies, nongovernment agencies, officials from public, private, parochial and charter schools, the University of Hawaii, the Federal Executive Board and a host of other organizations.

We listened as Jim Weyman, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service in Honolulu, explained that the storm was expected to bring strong wind gusts of 60 mph or more, along with two to three inches of rain, from Kauai to Molokai, with only slightly less severe conditions on Maui and Lanai. Hawaii island would be spared the heavy rains and damaging winds.

This was the sixth conference call we conducted with our partners since Weyman phoned Tuesday and alerted Civil Defense vice director Ed Teixeira to the possible consequences of the storm system heading toward the islands. For a time on Wednesday it looked as if the storm might weaken, but during that final conference call, the National Weather Service issued a high wind warning that would become effective at 6 p.m.

  We had several things to consider, including recent history. In early December 2007, a storm ripped across the island chain, bringing down trees and utility poles that closed roads and left 45,000 customers on Oahu without electric power. It also caused extensive flooding on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island that resulted in a presidential disaster declaration. The forecast for that storm was virtually identical to the one we now faced. A second factor was the timing: the storm front was predicted to cross Niihau and Kauai during the early morning, Oahu by midday and Maui in the afternoon. That could mean trees and utility poles being blown down across highways already crowded with commuters. The loss of electric traffic signals due to power disruptions would create a confusing, difficult and dangerous situation for tens of thousands of people.

The cold front and severe weather we expected weakened a bit. But it also could have been stronger than the National Weather Service forecast. Just last month rainfall amounts that caused widespread flooding and damaged hundreds of homes and businesses on Oahu were much greater than had been predicted only a few hours earlier. And we were criticized by various community members for not closing schools in a timely manner and for not keeping residents off of congested roads and highways. Even with improved technology, it is still not possible to determine exactly how a storm system is going to behave.

  That final conference call lasted more than an hour, with every participant given an opportunity to ask questions and make comments and suggestions about dealing with the approaching storm. It was not easy for state schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto, who was on phone with us, to close public schools in the counties of Kauai, Maui and Honolulu. But she did, and so did the private, parochial and charter schools, and the University of Hawaii. Coupled with the school closings, Gov. Linda Lingle's order allowing non-disaster-response state workers in those three counties to stay home the next day meant there would be far less traffic on the roads in the morning, reducing the chance of serious injuries or deaths.

Early on Friday, the cold front, according to the National Weather Service senior staff forecaster, appeared to be less impressive but strong enough for the office to maintain the high wind warning. The front still had enough punch to cause scattered power outages and damage the roofs of several homes on Oahu. On Maui, where little rain was forecast, more than five inches fell in south shore areas. Even areas on the Big Island experienced strong winds and heavy rain. During Hawaii's rainy season, October through March, such weather systems bring high winds, rain and flooding to some part of our state every year, often several times during a season. We should plan for the disruptions they bring the way mainland jurisdictions plan for snow days.

  While news reports, following this latest storm, focused on the cost of closing schools and government offices, a number of people told me they believe we made the proper recommendations. But I've also read the criticism in published letters and editorials, and heard it on radio and TV.

While I respect their right to criticize, the safety of everyone in this state, resident or visitor - especially the safety of the children - is my highest priority and the highest priority of the men and women at State Civil Defense.

Maj. Gen. Robert G. F. Lee is adjutant general of the Hawaii National Guard and director of State Civil Defense.