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Hawaii Must Fix its Disastrous Disaster Management

Raya Salter is an energy justice attorney, former Hawaii resident and state employee, a Member of the New York State Climate Action Council and Executive Director of the Energy Justice Law & Policy Center.

We are all attempting to grapple with the horrifying losses caused by the fires on Maui. Now is a time of rescue and grief, as over 100 people are dead with those numbers expected to rise. Yet, while we await the results of official investigations, we must acknowledge that this tragedy was not only foreseeable - it is part of a broader pattern of poor planning in a region that is incredibly vulnerable to the climate crisis.

Local officials in Hawaii concede that they were made aware in advance by the National Weather Service that they were in a “red flag situation” due to dry conditions. In fact, Maui has been battling wildfires due to dryness for years. Yet, none of Maui’s 80 sirens went off to warn residents of the fire because nobody attempted to activate them.

Reports say that officials were woefully unprepared, and greatly underestimated the threat of wildfires. In the wake of the disaster, phone, internet and power is out on many parts of the island and fuel and clean water are in short supply. The state and federal response is inadequate and desperate residents are asking why.

The truth is that Hawaii state officials have been ignoring serious lapses in emergency and disaster preparedness for many years. From the “fake missile alert” in 2018 sending residents into a panic to the sweltering classrooms impacting the state’s school children, the state has failed to grasp the reality of its vulnerability.

In 2018, I wrote about how the state’s foundering response to hurricane Lane exposed the shocking truth of the state’s inaction in the face of widespread disaster. The climate crisis has turned much of Hawaii’s lush landscape into a tinderbox. In addition, Hawaii’s entire food supply must be replaced every five to eight days, as it shipped in from thousands of miles away, with no significant strategic reserve in place.

Threats like a direct hit from a major hurricane, once considered a rare event, are now expected with more frequency with devastatingly increased flood risk. Yet, by the state’s own calculations, within three days of a direct hit from a major storm, medical supplies would run out and medical services would be depleted by 40 percent.

Within five days, food and water would be at critical levels, followed by fuel. More than 380,400 people - 35 percent of the island’s population - would seek shelter. Shelters, however, would fail, because few are built to withstand a hurricane. The power would be expected to fail immediately with restoration impossible for many months. With the onset of the climate crisis, Hawai’i is one major storm away from complete disaster and displacement, impacting the poorest residents the hardest. This is not acceptable.

I am a former resident of Hawai’i. I am now based in New York where I sit on the state’s Climate Action Council. As part of that body, I helped develop New York’s roadmap for how we will reach our climate goals. That roadmap, among other studies, includes a hard look at resilience and the need to both mitigate emissions with a climate justice lens while becoming more resilient and adaptable to irreversible changes. New York, however, as evidenced by 2021’s devastating hurricane Ida, also must do better. At the Council, I pushed for stronger measures, particularly for frontline communities. After the tragedy in Lahaina, I feel it is necessary to do the same.

Governor Green, the time is now for you to turn the corner on the unconscionable lack of disaster and climate preparedness in Hawai’i. To begin, you must acknowledge the problem, create immediate accountability and take action on resilience with a climate justice lens.

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