Hawaii County has released a report largely critical of its own response to the monthslong eruption of Kilauea volcano in 2018 — in which Halema‘uma‘u crater threw ash 30,000 feet into the air, lava destroyed a 716 homes and structures in lower Puna, and hundreds of residents were displaced.
The report, assembled following an “after action review” by nine county agencies — plus Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Hope Services Hawaii and local utility companies — focused on the areas of organization, data management and communication in the time frame of May 2018 to September 2018.
Assessments in those areas were categorized as: what worked well, what needs improvement and what didn’t work.
“During the incident there was not complete failures of the three categories, however multiple breakdowns occurred during the incident due to ad hoc discussions, limited information sharing platforms (and) limited resources to develop a common operating picture which supports assigning resources (and) decision making …,” the report states.
The report concedes county Civil Defense “has limited resources to manage” incidents of the magnitude and duration of the eruption without assistance from partner agencies. The Emergency Operations Center at Civil Defense headquarters in Hilo was manned during the lava emergency with a mix of county, state and federal employees, which included the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard.
Mayor Harry Kim said it’s good to learn from what didn’t work, but praised the inter-agency disaster response and took issue with a report item that said the “County Policy Group as defined in the (Emergency Operations Plan) was never activated,” leading to the exclusion of some “elected and legally appointed officials who are responsible for the protection of life and property within their jurisdiction.”
“The federal government was there on a 24-hour basis; we got the FEMA (disaster) declaration,” Kim said. “… We paved (Government Beach Road) as an escape route. That was paid for by FEMA, way before the destruction. … We finished the damage assessment, which is a complex thing, sent it to the state for review. It was sent to the president. Within three days, we got presidential approval. That sort of thing, you don’t brag about it, but to tell you the truth, that’s almost a miracle in time and coordination.
“And all of that is because we followed the EOP.”
Under the heading of “what went well” were the weekly community town halls held in Pahoa. Also of note was assistance from the Salvation Army, which provided food for evacuees in shelters, grassroots organizations such as Pu‘uhonua O Puna that set up locations for food and supplies, and the Hawaii Disaster Assistance and Recovery Team, which provided help such as travel funds and rental assistance to those affected by the eruption.
The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System that integrates the Emergency Alert System with the newly developed Wireless Emergency Alert (cellphone messages), also received a positive review.
Among items identified as needing improvement include the operation of emergency shelters. The report said evacuees were affected, and security problems arose from non-evacuees, including the homeless, availing themselves of the emergency shelters.
“I have to agree with the criticism that the shelter was opened up to pretty much anybody,” said state Sen. Russell Ruderman of Pahoa. “And that was a big mistake. It ruined our gym. It ruined our park, and made it harder to get services to people who really needed it.”
The report also criticized the flow of official information, saying although numerous public information officers worked in the Emergency Operations Center, “a Joint Information Center was never established to present a coordinated message to the media and the public.”
Calling the public demand for information “overwhelming,” the report noted “a lot of inaccurate information was presented about the event by both individuals in the media and by ‘trusted persons’” — although those trusted persons were neither defined nor identified.
“One of the most difficult things that is happening today is in regards to communication of information,” Kim said. “This is why on coronavirus … we were the first in the state to activate (public information updates). We meet every morning at 7, every day of the week. If you looked at the mission board, if you saw it, it said, ‘No. 1 mission is to provide timely and credible information to the public.’
“Facebook and those things have become a major problem to all responders, us being no different.”
State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura of Puna called the report “alarming,” but said it “could not have come at a better time, now that we are facing the potential of a pandemic” with the coronavirus COVID-19.
“Really, we’re going to have to put up some kind of telecommunication-type resources rapidly, right? Because people are going to be quarantined,” she said. “… People should not have to rely on social media to get up-to-date responses, especially when reliability is an issue.”
Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said he appreciates “the self-critical value that is incorporated in this document,” but added in his district people relied on Facebook Live presenters such as Ikaika Marzo and Philip Ong for updates.
“They were doing presentations every few hours and getting a lot of good information out there,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “And I don’t feel that was false information. I’m seeing what went well, what we could do better, what went wrong — but not ‘we should work with the community to make this better next time.’
“I feel that’s what is missing in this document.”
Ruderman agreed, saying the county did “a shockingly bad job” of “communicating to people when the disaster was unfolding quickly.”
“They could’ve hired somebody who understands social media and how to use computers to get the information out to the people on a daily basis. That would’ve helped a lot,” he said. “What happened was, because of the absence of that, we were learning our information on Facebook everyday from people like Ikaika Marzo and Ryan Finlay and the Hawaii Tracker guys’ Facebook posts.”
Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kirkiewicz, whose district includes those hit hardest by the lava, echoed Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder’s assertion that the missing ingredient in the report is community input.
“I really hope if there is further work done on this report, that the county reaches out to some of its harshest critics, to folks in the community who were living through the event, and capturing their stories,” Kiekiewicz said.
She added that information technology seems to be missing from those consulted for the report.
“If we’re going to move from the whiteboard way of managing a disaster and start moving into the digital arena, shouldn’t IT be part of those discussions?” she asked, rhetorically. “Reading this report, it’s evident that there is so much room for improvement. But what I don’t see is … what’s their plan going forward? Who’s coordinating all of this?
“I want a trigger-ready solution. … And in my mind, where we are seeing more disasters occurring more frequently with more intensity, we really need to be embracing a lifestyle of disaster preparedness and emergency response. It has to be embedded in our lifestyle.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.