Thursday, January 25, 2007


When disaster strikes keep the public in the dark

Imagine there's a disaster. You want information, but there's nothing on the radio but canned programming. There's no way you can find out what to do, what to expect. The authorities have no way to warn the public.

Ah, the Big Island earthquake, you say. It was just like that. Yes, but I'm talking about the future as well as the past. The communication problems that came to light with the Big Island earthquake are nothing new, they are caused by a combination of uncontrolled mass acquisition and robot operation of cookie-cutter radio stations and lack of preparedness by public officials. And there's not much indication of improvement yet. So it could happen again. And again.

Media consolidation has brought us robot radio stations that are programmed from afar. They don't care about being your news source in a disaster, they only want you to listen to their (often right-wing) programming and buy the advertised products. They don't need backup power to sell you things when the lights are usually on.

Well, there are at least the sirens. Guess what: you may not have sirens in your neighborhood. Some people do, some people don't. And our state government didn't want you to know if you are a have or a have not.

Yikes, you may say, well, when is this all going to be fixed? Ha, ha, ha. Funny you should ask. The info will eventually come out, but for the moment, that too is a secret, because the state is retreating into secret bunkers to make plans.

Ok, let's take one thing at a time.

Media consolidation

The lack of information available to Hawaii's anxious public was a shock and (I hope) a wake-up call. Interestingly, it was not a unique situation. Perhaps the best-known example of how media consolidation (that is, the widespread buying up of local radio or TV stations and operating them from afar, often with programming that is made to sound local) has caused similar problems elsewhere.

A situation that occurred five years ago this week parallels our own and should have been known to our civil defense officials. In the town of Minot, North Dakota, a train derailed spilling 240,000 gallons of ammonia on the town. That stuff kills and injures. People tuned to their local radio stations for instructions on what to do.

No one was at home at the robot stations operated by media conglomerate Clear Channel. Although people were advised by 911 operators to listen for advice on the radio, none was forthcoming. (Knock, knock. Who's there? Nobody.)

This story was carried on today's Democracy Now. You can hear the program or read a transcript on their web page. I advise checking out the audio or video of the segment because of the chilling voices on the 911 dispatch tapes.

If you visit that page you'll understand the dangers that media consolidation poses to disaster preparedness. Hawaii fell right in the trap. We had no way to broadcast information after the quake. The question now is, what will happen if the identical conditions--or worse--should befall us in the future? And of course, they will, the question is just when.

How come our civil defense people didn't play act the scenario that eventually played out for real? Where are Hawaii's disaster planners? (Knock, knock. Who's there? Nobody?)

Disappeared sirens

When state legislature held hearings in the month after the Katrina floods, they learned that some sirens were rusted or inoperative. Thanks to Star-Bulletin reporter Alexandre Da Silva, we learned in his January 14 article Disaster plans show a shortage of sirens: 148 areas lack the means to issue disaster warnings, says Hawaii Civil Defense. This is more than a little rust, this is inexcusable neglect (tell me again about the budget surplus, please...).

Sadly, as watchdog blogger Doug Carlson reveals in his post, List of Communities Without Sirens No Longer Secret; Newspaper Forces Information Release, the state resisted releasing the information. Doug asked:
“How does refusing to tell citizens where these gaps exist serve the public good? Families living in a gap area certainly deserve to know about it and that whatever sense of security they have the sirens will alert them in an emergency is false.”
Doug commends the Star-Bulletin for pursuing an information request and obtaining and making public the list. Why was there such a delay in getting the info? Did our civil defense people even know which sirens were working and which not? Just a theory.

Secret talks keep the public in the dark

The earthquake brought us not only a power failure, but a Sunshine failure. The administration decided to gather experts to work on the communication problem, but they met and conferred in secret. As readers may know, I've advocated for a completely open planning process (for example, in this article). This secret bunker mentality mirrors the antics of our national government, where the people's right to know has been locked up somewhere undisclosed.

Doug Carlson is correctly concerned:
The list is unsettling. How do you suppose parents with children in Enchanted Lake Elementary feel, knowing the school is on the list? Or people who frequent Kapiolani Park and the five other Oahu parks listed, or residents of Sunset Beach, Velzyland, Palolo Valley, Mililani, Kahuku, Waianae, Ewa, Pearl City…? The list is extensive.
We should all be concerned.

The state didn't inspect those dams, remember. People were killed as a result. We should not be so tolerant of our government's failures. I found the Governor's State of the State message disturbing because there is work to do and money to be spent to reverse ongoing neglect before we can talk about the size of a surplus and tax refunds.

When the next disaster strikes, the siren may sound somewhere, but will it sound for thee?


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