Hurricane Harvey, view from space

This editorial by Karl Kim was published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on September 3, 2017. Kim is the executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaiʻi and is a professor in the UH Mānoa Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey is a harsh reminder of the hazards and threats we face in Hawaiʻi.

Flooding is the most common disaster by which people lose their lives and possessions. Over the last decade, there have been more than 7,000 disasters worldwide with 90 percent related to climate. Sixty-five percent were floods affecting more than 2.3 billion people. More than 1,200 people were killed in the recent flooding in South Asia.

While the losses from Harvey are still being tallied, many lessons for us emerge.

We are not prepared for extreme events. We don’t understand them nor how to manage “rare” events. Our infrastructure systems can barely handle normal loads, let alone 100-year, 500-year or 1,000-year events. We need more attention to extreme event analysis and risk management to save lives and reduce losses.

Like Houstonians, we are building recklessly in floodplains and hazard zones and increasing our exposure to harm from heavy rainfall and flooding. We are putting more people, buildings and possessions in harm’s way. The increase in non-porous surfaces further exacerbates flooding. Planning, development and building must be more attuned to natural hazards. We need to face the reality of climate change and restore the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard that President Donald Trump recently rescinded.

With every disaster, the elderly and vulnerable groups face the greatest harm. Preparedness must focus more on people with disabilities, limited mobility and medical needs.

Disasters are all about social science. Race, ethnicity, economic class and social characteristics affect the exposure and the capacity to prevent harm.

Our systems of drainage, flood control, roads and infrastructure are woefully inadequate. We could not possibly handle an event like Harvey. We’ve ignored the warning signals like the 2004 Mānoa flood and the 2006 Ala Wai Canal sewage disaster triggered by heavy rainfall. These disasters are clear signs of what’s to come.

A big slow-moving hurricane like Harvey brings multiple hazards. In addition to high winds and storm surge, it can dump trillions of gallons of rainwater, leading to stalled vehicles, road closures, power outages and contamination from hazardous substances in our urban environment.

There are also impacts to our natural habitat as species are displaced and landscapes are altered by water.

Science and technology are critical to forecasts and predictions of weather events and impacts on our communities. Our cities must become more absorbent with engineered and natural systems for absorbing, diverting, holding and releasing floodwaters. Social media and communications technologies play a huge role in sharing information, locating stranded people and connecting those in need with resources.

We need to invest more in planning for disaster recovery. Given our remote location and limited transportation assets, when a catastrophic event occurs, we will need robust, engaged planning to ensure not just quick recovery but also building back better, stronger, greener and more equitably.

Harvey is a harsh reminder to focus on food and water security. We need adequate emergency supplies, canned goods and nonperishable rations, but also the ability to provide potable water and food for a million people here in the middle of the Pacific. These vulnerabilities are linked to potential for crime and violence following major disruptions.

While we strive to improve warning and alert systems, to enhance emergency response, sheltering and mass care, we also must rely on our neighbors, friends and strangers to assist during times of need. We need to build social capital and enhance trust relations in our community. Unlike communities on the continent, we’ll need to rely on each other for water, food and security during disasters.

Let’s invest more in disaster risk reduction strategies in Hawaiʻi. These efforts must involve all sectors, organizations and neighborhoods. We need more than exercises, drills and training courses.

We need a culture of resilience in Hawaiʻi. Our communities must be able to not just survive, but also thrive amid these hazards and threats.

While the challenges are great, the returns on building resilience, especially when measured in terms of lives saved and averted losses, are truly priceless.