Friday, August 31, 2007
Linking New Orleans, Virginia Tech, and Hawaii--why do we ignore the wakeup calls?
by Larry Geller
Katrina (August 28-30, 2005) is remembered here (see Lack of leadership has failed Katrina victims) not only as a natural disaster but as a failure of government at all levels—national, state and local—to respond appropriately. It can be said that much, if not most, of the ongoing human tragedy in Louisiana and Mississippi is the result of human failure.
No one in Hawaii would like to see anything like that happen here. The Legislature held hearings in September 2005, shortly after the hurricane and flood, to assess our own preparedness. I attended the hearings, and was dismayed to hear over and over again that one thing or another was "a work in progress." Whether it was sirens or shelters, it appeared that we needed to get busy or risk becoming a scene of tragedy in our own right one day.
Then came the Kaloko Dam break, and we learned that we were indeed unprepared, with expected results: people were killed. We had not inspected the dams in 11 years, a costly and most likely criminal neglect. I'll quote myself in this March 19, 2006 Advertiser story, Problems impede Isles' preparations for disasters:
Then the Kaloko dam actually burst, prompting some to wonder if Hawai'i is too complacent about the threats it faces."I call it the Traffic Light Syndrome," said Larry Geller, president of Kokua Council, a nonprofit senior citizens advocacy organization. "We don't put in a traffic light until pedestrians are killed."
On the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast, Kokua Council sponsored a panel talk on local civil defense preparedness. The panel was covered by Hawaii Public Radio the same day and in the Advertiser story, Few shelters from the storm. The picture caption warned that there was still work to do:
Ed Teixeira, state Civil Defense vice director, says "we are definitely not there yet" when it comes to having enough shelters for the elderly and people with disabilities, when disaster strikes.
The article mentioned legislative appropriations for supplies—none of which had been bought yet—and for siren repair.
The following month I wrote in Disappeared disaster plans that essential information was still not available and open planning could not be monitored by the public.
As to the sirens, a Star-Bulletin story dated January 14, 2007, Disaster plans show a shortage of sirens reported
148 areas lack the means to issue disaster warnings, says Hawaii Civil Defense
Then there was the Big Island earthquake and the puzzling concurrent power failure. We on Oahu got to experience the ongoing failure of our civil defense preparedness as we scanned the radio dial for information on the quake, only to discover canned programming on the one station with backup power. That should have been a warning to us. Did we learn? Well, do you have a list of stations to tune to that have installed new backup generators?
More questions: Do you have a list of shelters which are hardened for hurricanes (schools with jalousie windows wouldn't be safe)? Which shelters accept pets (you know the answer to this one: none). Do all nursing homes and care homes for the elderly have agreed disaster plans on file with civil defense? Do any? What provisions have been made, as you read this in 2007, for persons with disabilities, those in wheelchairs, elderly people on upper floors of high rises, and so forth? Is your neighborhood siren working yet?
In short, have you been told what you need to know about survival in a disaster, and have we all been informed of the progress that civil defense has made since the revelations of the September 2005 legislative hearings?
As we mark the second anniversary of the flooding of New Orleans, Hawaii's disaster preparedness remains shrouded in secrecy. It's also nearing the second anniversary of the Legislature's September 2005 hearings, and I suggest it would not be a bad thing to reconvene the joint committees and check on progress.
Can Virginia Tech's communication failures instruct Hawaii?
An AP article in this morning's Advertiser covered the ongoing cry for the resignation of the Virginia Tech president after the school failed to warn anyone that a killer was on the loose April 16, 2007. An independent panel concluded that lives were lost as a result of the failure to communicate. [see also The train wreck method of running government. More needs to be done at Virginia Tech than removing the guy listed on the organization chart as responsible.]
The Virginia Tech massacre briefly exploded onto the national scene, of course, but though the news crescendo waned long ago the possibly avoidable loss of 31 lives should serve as a lesson to Hawaii. Put one way: we need to have working communications infrastructure, and we need to play-act scenarios to prove that it is working.
The communication failures at Virginia Tech should be a warning of what could happen in Hawaii if we don't correct our own communications shortfalls. Yet meetings on communication improvements have been held in secret instead of in public.
We should have learned from Katrina. The hurricane precipitated a huge and in fact continuing disaster, but it has largely disappeared from press radar and our consciousness. Look for stories about how New Orleans is doing today and you won't find much in the mainstream news. Google reveals plenty of coverage on the web, since activists are still fighting for the rights of exiled residents of the city. And if you're a viewer of Democracy Now, of course, you're well aware that reconstruction in predominantly black areas has only barely begun (it's worse than that, much worse, click on the link above to learn more).
But politics and racism aside, we in Hawaii would be foolish not to be prepared, given the example of New Orleans. Probably we are better prepared than in 2005, in some ways. Should we be complacent? The Legislature appropriated money. Has it been spent? Where exactly are we today? We need to know.
The Virginia Tech massacre is more recent but has been sooner forgotten. It should remind us that communication is essential to save lives. Secret meetings held by the Lingle administration may or may not have produced results. How can we tell, when information is kept secret?
Our state legislature has the power to learn the truth. Let's not wait for the next hurricane, tsunami or dam failure to get the details. If we're better prepared, that would be a good thing, but how do we know we are? And if we're not, should we be spending some time and money on disaster preparedness instead of focusing all of our attention on a train to nowhere, for example?
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