Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Honolulu can choose its Apolcalypse
by Larry GellerI was just reading about Apocalypse scares, and it put me in a mood.
Heck, the world didn’t end in 2012, and 2013 looks good to go so far, with nothing specific from the Mayans, Aztecs or anyone else, to the contrary. We might make it through this year.
Yeah. Those of us fortunate not to live in areas of the world where humanity is shooting or gassing itself in large numbers. Yes, those of us not in flood, fire or tornado zones. Yes—it’s a privilege to be able to say “we might make it through this year.” I know that. I know that. Nevertheless, I want to press on.
I started an article some time ago about Honolulu’s apparent lack of ability to plan—for emergencies, for maintenance, for transportation, and so forth. Urban planning had been delegated to the PLDC and the HCDA and taken out of our hands, or rather, given away by our supposed “representatives,” to these agencies that are, by design, unaccountable to anyone.
Then the PLDC was repealed after collective popular action, and I sensed a glimmer of hope, although we still have the HCDA handing out exemptions and over-riding zoning at the drop of a developer’s request.
The repeal of the PLDC law restored my belief in activism and the hope that we citizens can somehow regain control over our local government.
If we don’t, though, we face some special problems unique to being an island in middle of the Pacific Ocean that could do us in. Yup, we have a choice of ways to go, depending on whether or not we change how our government does business, I suggest.
Just because we don’t read about problems in the newspaper doesn’t mean they’ve gone away, it just means that the newspapers would rather print articles on sports and murder trials.
So this article has morphed into a review of potential Apocalypses. They’re not going to happen, right? Of course not. Because we’ll do something about them.
Unlike a newspaper, we don’t cover sports here. So let me revive some of the concerns that the papers have shied away from, or forgotten about. Not to say that the Apocalypse is inevitable, but to suggest that we get busy working on some of these issues, or they could come after us.
For some, we’ll get plenty of warning. For example, if the rats start leaving the ship—that is, if the developers pack up and fly out first-class—we’ll know that Kakaako has been overbuilt with giant condominium towers and is about to tilt over and slide under the waves. Ancient wisdom—watch the rats.
In Honolulu we absolutely excel at not doing anything about our problems. In actuality, many will not result in “Apocalypse,” but only higher taxes. Sooner or later, one has to pay for neglect.
I recommend the interview segment of last night’s Daily Show to all you Apocalypse fans. Bad things happen when planning is neglected. Jon Stewart’s guest was Dr. Sheri Fink, whose book Five Days at Memorial was released just today. An editorial review from the Amazon.com page:
As the floodwaters rose after Hurricane Katrina, patients, staff, and families who sheltered in New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital faced a crisis far worse than the storm itself. Without power, an evacuation plan, or strong leadership, caregiving became chaotic, and exhausted doctors and nurses found it difficult to make even the simplest decisions. And, when it came to making the hardest decisions, some of them seem to have failed.
Failure to be prepared at Memorial resulted in numerous avoidable deaths.
Dr. Fink asked, “Be prepared for everything to fail in a disaster….You’re in a flood zone. Are the generators in the basement?” Jon Stewart replied, “Yes.”
Here in Honolulu, I have no idea if the generators are in the hospital basements. I do know that the papers reported ambulances are routinely diverted due to overcrowded emergency rooms—a situation that has persisted since the closure of the former St. Francis hospitals. What will happen in an emergency if our ERs are already over capacity in normal times?
Are we prepared to stack patients or bodies in hospital hallways due to lack of preparedness? If we are indeed prepared, why won’t anyone say so? I testified at a City City Council hearing on the ER situation, and basically, it appears that nothing will be done until Queens completes refurbishing the hospital they bought in Central Oahu, which takes time.
I also attended a FEMA training for first responders in July. Planning is tough. The textbook was an inch thick with additional material on a CD. I learned that no one will come to our rescue in a disaster. It’s up to us to be prepared.
This is the biggie, but also the one we have least control over.
While most environmentalists are not religious zealots, some use the image of the Apocalypse to describe the inevitable outcome should we neglect to bring carbon emissions under control. Is it some kind of comfort to blame the likelihood of poor future conditions on the inevitability of a Biblical Apocalypse? Climate is changing. Oh, well. Nothing I can do about it. Pass the Mai-Tai, please.
Hawaii is somewhat at the mercy of national and international policy with regard to the amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere and the consequences of everyone else’s neglect. Yes, we must reduce our dependence on burning oil and coal for electricity, but even if we could totally eliminate fossil fuels here, the lack of interest elsewhere in doing the same will doom us to share a common fate.
Paradoxically, other places around the world are in the same situation. That is, even if they improve, they believe they’re doomed anyway, so why bother. As a result, we’re all doomed. And so we will soon approach the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that makes a bad outcome inevitable, a point from which there is no fixing things.
Under President George W. Bush, the US did not even sign the Kyoto protocol. Our efforts to deal with human-caused climate change have been negligible. We wasted too much time, and we’re still doing little, some say nothing, to reduce emissions.
At this point, climate change is recognized as a real threat. Indeed, we are living through it, as long-burning fires threaten San Francisco and as the North-East still recovers from Hurricane Sandy. The Mid-West may become a desert, and Florida and Long Island will be flooded.
So will Honolulu.
For the first time, perhaps, we can see that the future will be radically different from the past, and not better. We may have had struggles in our lives, but who would have thought that humanity was going to puff enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to threaten our very way of life?
It was only four years ago that bales of trash were piling up at a facility at Hawaii Waste Systems waiting to be sent by barge to Oregon. Oahu’s landfills were filling, and this was the desperate measure designed to buy time.
The barges never left, and the bales, inadequately wrapped, tore and attracted a plague of insects. See: ilind.net, Torn plastic wrapping on bales of Honolulu trash waiting to be shipped to Oregon signal problems,12/31/2009.
The 20,000 bales of garbage finally ended up in the Waimanalo Gulch landfill and in the H-power plant in March, 2011.
Honolulu’s landfill problems are no longer in the news, but they will be back. The landfill problem still looms, if not in the pages of the newspaper.
How many people can Oahu sustain? I suggest we’re at or near the limit. Yet more condos are planned—more outsiders are being invited to occupy our limited space. With their cars. With their garbage. With their, um, waste products.
Prime farmland will be sacrificed to accommodate increased population. The incessant growth is fueled by unlimited greed.
Imagine that something happens to affect tourism, the engine of our economy. Say a bomb goes off in Waikiki, or a really big hurricane tears the place up. Whatever. Then who will support our growth habit? Oh, the rich folks will fly out, leaving us with our problem.
What’s wrong with this picture? Everything. What are we doing about it? Nothing. Ask, and be told that population growth is inevitable. There’s nothing we can do about it. This is a free country.
Ok, then Pop-pocalypse is inevitable.
Honolulu’s 2012 traffic congestion scores in a national survey improved slightly over 2011 (see Tourist-pocalypse below). This year we came in second to Los Angeles.
While only 79.5% of commuters drive to work, we add to that school drop-offs and traffic to UH Manoa when school is in session. The result—gridlock or near-gridlock is increasing.
High population densities result in localized and area-wide traffic congestion. USA Today, in an article on the Inrix traffic survey, reported that Honolulu’s population density is 1,586.7 people per sq. mile, the 5th highest in the country. They did not note that traffic passing into Waikiki through the “gateway” of Kakaako already goes through an area that reported a population density in the 2010 census of 87,816 persons per square mile. The population density of Hong Kong is “only” about 67,000 persons per square mile.
So what is Honolulu doing to avoid Car-pocalypse? For one thing, it is building a couple of new condos right near the high-density area mentioned above. A further 22 condos are planned just a short walk away, and more nearby. Each of these planned condo towers will increase, not decrease, the traffic congestion on the highways and in the immediate area. So what we are doing is planning to make it worse.
In Central Oahu, ag land is to be converted to housing, with each house of course provided with parking for one or more cars.
The outcome is very predictable, yet our city and state governments continue on as though building more homes and towers is really ok to do. In fact, the new towers routinely receive height exemptions. Height exemptions mean even more cars.
You’d think our “leaders” would see where they’re taking us, but no.
Hawaii’s economy depends on tourism. Traditionally, we kept tourists confined to Waikiki except when they were safely bussed out to a luau or to the Polynesian Cultural Center.
But now, more and more, tourists are escaping overcrowded Waikiki and ranging as far as Kailua and the North Shore on their own. Each of them carries a smartphone, and they know how to use it. They tweet. They report back home.
News in Japan travels very quickly—when a new Hawaii restaurant is written up, soon other publications and guidebooks follow suit. I’ve seen tourists on the way to Kailua reading guidebook pages on what can be found there. They are also very faddish, so those restaurants are soon crowded. Tourists tweet, the tweets results in yet more coverage. Then more tweets, etc.
The KCC Farmers Market was soon “discovered” and rapidly became so overrun with tourists that many Honolulu residents won’t go there, just as an example of how quickly news travels in Japan.
All that is arguably good for the economy, but it brings with it some risk. Sooner or later, tourists may take back with them stories of how long they were stuck in their cars worrying about whether they had enough gas to get back to the hotel.
It’s foolish to believe that as traffic slows to a halt at key locations around the island, no one will notice. Of course they will notice. And tweet.
From a 2012 report that was widely circulated:
While it ranks as the 53rd most populous city in the U.S., Honolulu tops the INRIX rankings as having the nation’s most congested traffic corridors.
[Forbes, The Most Traffic-Jammed Cities In America, 5/25/2012]
For this year, we came in second, but tourist guidebooks lag behind a bit. So far, the traffic issue has not made a dent in Japanese tourist arrival numbers, but what if the traffic gets worse and gets noticed over there? The process has already started.
Honolulu’s traffic congestion was reported in the Japanese press and is just becoming noticed in sources tourists may consult. The Japanese public are voracious newspaper readers, and so the 2012 report on Honolulu’s unenviable ranking didn’t escape notice over there. For example (move your mouse over):
[bloomberg.co.jp, ホノルルが全米最悪－交通渋滞でロサンゼルスを抜く , 5/22/2012]
The Wikitravel page for Honolulu reports on traffic conditions including this:
The merge at Middle Street has been named the single most congested section of freeway in the United States.
Fortunately, the Japanese-language translation has not been kept up to date. It still lists the Superferry, for example. When they translate the current page, the traffic news will likely be in there.
There’s no predicting if or whether tourism will suffer, of course, but what is Honolulu doing to stave off that possibility? Why nothing. Instead, plans are to add those 20-30 new condominium towers to the landscape plus sprawling developments in Central Oahu that will add several thousand more cars to the roads. As traffic grinds to a halt, tourist literature is sure to take note at some point.
Enough. I could write about Sewer-pocalypse. Honolulu still needs to deal with expensive EPA orders to fix its sewage treatment plants.
I could write about Power-pocalypse. In fact, today’s paper indicates that Governor Abercrombie insists on pushing forward with undersea power cables that, if you will recall, will raise, not lower, our electricity rates. How much more can we pay?
Bottom line: there’s plenty to work on. And tweeting about it doesn’t fix it.
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