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Weathering the Storms


A look at disaster planning on Molokai

Hurricanes, tsunamis, flooding – catastrophes like these can quickly go from bad to worse in a place as isolated as Molokai. In the midst of disaster, the island will rely first on its own – a small team of dedicated responders who are doing their best at planning for the worst.

When a tsunami hit Hawaii three years ago, 25 out of the 29 damage cases in Maui County were from Molokai, according to the Red Cross. Though these cases didn’t qualify as a disaster, the aftermath brings with it fear of what will carry Molokai through a time of need.

“We’re not going to sit and wait for someone to rescue us,” said local paramedic and emergency planner Scotty Schaefer. “We’re going to have to take control.”

That means Molokai is taking emergency planning into its own hands instead of relying on state and county civil defense agencies, which are responsible for disaster response and recovery.

Heading for Higher Ground

About 10 years ago, Schaefer and Travis Tancayo, Maui County fire battalion chief five, helped start that unofficial group, sometimes called the Emergency Action Committee.  They aligned with Steven Arce of the Maui County Public Works Department and officials from Molokai General Hospital for planning.

“We talked to each other and took it upon ourselves to make sure we were in touch and had resources and a plan for how we would handle different situations,” Tancayo said. One example is that they set up a system so that if there was a big storm or tsunami approaching the island, Arce would take his heavy equipment – dozer, loader, etc. – to high ground. The Fire Department and medics would be in place and ready to go. Then they would work as a small task force to open roads and rescue people.

Schaefer said about six years ago, when they were doing this active planning, the group consisted of about 30 Molokai residents, including business leaders, from all areas of the island. He said he hopes to get that together again this summer, but it is important to slowly build and form partnerships instead of trying to group everyone together at once.

“The challenge about planning is having a wide enough core group to cover a wide enough base but not having such an expansive group that you can’t get anything done,” Schaefer said.

Breaking Bureaucratic Barriers

The benefit of this unofficial group is that it does not have to go through administrative protocols in order to take action, unlike civil defense agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which supports citizens and first responders from a national level.

Schaefer said civil defense and FEMA are organized on a large scale, but their impacts are felt in small areas that are often forgotten. Michael Kern, FEMA voluntary agency liaison, described the process of emergency response as beginning locally and then working its way up to federal action.

“The local jurisdiction – the local emergency managers – are right there on the scene,” Kern said.  He added that if the county doesn’t have the capacity to help, they will turn to State civil defense. If necessary, the governor makes a request to the president, who would make a Presidential Disaster Proclamation. This gives FEMA the authority to spend resources in times of disaster.

Though FEMA requires the Presidential Disaster Declaration to take emergency action, FEMA staff in Hawaii are constantly working with agencies and groups to prepare for the worst, Kern said.

The American Red Cross is also working toward disaster preparedness on Molokai. Michelle Liberty, Maui County director for the Red Cross, said there is a disaster services team of 17 Molokai volunteers who are trained to respond in emergencies.

“These are just regular people who have regular jobs who live in the Molokai community, and they just came forward and took the time to train,” she said. The Red Cross is constantly looking for more volunteers. These residents can be nurses, mental health professionals or citizens with a drive to help. The work could be as simple as bringing items from the airport to where they are needed in emergencies.

Taking Shelter

When a natural disaster is on its way, residents and visitors are left wondering where to go and what they need. This is where the Red Cross comes in. The organization recently hosted an exercise on Molokai in which volunteers practiced moving residents out of the evacuation shelters into a long-term shelter at the Molokai Baptist Church.

“We had all kinds of scenarios thrown at them,” Liberty said. “What would we do if we had these different needs? We also looked at how to position the shelter… If this was a real emergency, what would we need brought in? For example, Porta-Potties or showers.”

Molokai Baptist Church is one of the many long-term shelters on the island. These sites, including parks and recreation facilities and other churches, serve as a place for people to stay and have their needs met if a disaster, including a wildfire or earthquake, takes a heavy toll.

This type of shelter is distinguished from evacuation shelters – generally schools – where residents would go when threatened by a hurricane. However, when there is a threat of tsunami, there will be no Red Cross evacuation measures, Liberty said. Instead, the Red Cross will react after a wave causes destruction.

Schaefer said evacuation is a tricky thing, especially for official groups and agencies, because once you relocate somebody you have taken responsibility for their wellbeing. He said Molokai’s unofficial emergency leaders can fill the gaps left open by administrative restrictions.

“Let’s take a tsunami,” Schaefer said. “What do you do with Molokai Shores and Hotel Molokai? If you don’t notify [the visitors], you’ve left them in an inundation zone. If you do tell them, they say ‘Where do we go?’ They have their bag with toothpaste and swim shorts, and they have no food. What do we do with those guys? We’re going to open this facility, but how do we feed them? We have to depend on the kindness and heart and aloha of our Molokai people.”

This could mean Molokai residents take care of its visitors, along with its kupuna and residents with disabilities.

The Element of Aloha

“The great thing about Molokai is if you call someone and say, ‘Hey, we need help. Can you open? Can you send a bus?’ nobody is going to say ‘let me ask my boss,’” Schaefer said. “Ninety-seven percent of our people do that and answer the administrative boondoggles later.”

Molokai resident Zhantell Dudoit is involved in the Emergency Action Committee. She said emergency planning on Molokai is based on two principals: that Molokai residents will come together in times of need to help each other and that they have the ability to think outside of the box.

“It’s people who love the community, and they just do what they need to do,”  Dudoit said.

Tancayo said Molokai’s self-sufficiency and family connections is what drives the community – and will save it when disaster strikes. This means checking in with friends and kupuna and sharing supplies.

“I think a lot of people on Molokai are creative and they can figure things out,” Tancayo said. “There are more survivors living out here in the country, and that’s just how we grew up.”

Supplies and Demand

Though the aloha spirit may cover gaps in planning, there are still concerns over sufficient supplies available in emergencies.

“Molokai emergency action crews have always made the assumption that we’ll be on our own for at least three days,” Schaefer said. “That’s if communication survives.”

Tancayo said between the county and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, Molokai would have enough water to last at least two weeks.

There are also emergency supplies in a FEMA container at the National Guard armory in Kaunakakai. Though FEMA funded it, state and county civil defense is in charge of access and contents. However, neither FEMA nor state civil defense representatives that the Dispatch contacted knew what it held.

Tancayo did not have an exact inventory of supplies, but he said the container holds items like plywood, tarps and generators. He said these are post-incident items, meaning officials cannot open the container until after a disaster strikes. He also said the official call to open the container must come from civil defense on Oahu. The armory caretaker can unlock the armory so fire officials can unlock the container.

The Red Cross surveys local vendors to find out what their capacity is, and Schaefer said a revamped planning group will include business owners.

“If the barge didn’t come in for two weeks, we’d find out how ill-prepared we are,” Schaefer said. “We have a lot of folks who are self-sufficient, and we have a group who never learned how to be self-sufficient, and we have a group of kupuna who can’t be self-sufficient.”

He also said people get tired of constantly preparing for disasters that never come. Then, when there really is an emergency, they aren’t prepared, and they end up exhausting resources.

“The challenge with disaster preparedness is that it’s not sexy,” Schaefer said. “People make a kit after a storm hits, and then it gathers dust or the batteries get used for something.”

Continuing Concerns

Though there are continual planners in the community working with the state and county, there are still citizens concerned about disaster preparedness. Molokai resident John Wordin has been looking into records and talking with county and state officials, and he said there are still missing pieces in emergency planning.

“There are a lot of people who have a lot of concerns and no information,” Wordin said. Already Wordin has worked to move Kaunakakai Elementary School from the evacuation shelter list because it is too close to the flood zone. He said he learned Molokai has an official emergency preparedness plan, but it’s at the library in Kahului on Maui. It is on reference there, Wordin added, so it can’t even be checked out.

“We have a definite, unofficial, flexible plan for Molokai,” Schaefer said. “State civil defense and County civil defense [also] have a plan, but how well those plans get communicated to the rural communities in the [outlying areas], I don’t know.”

He added that there is such a large scope of potential disasters to cover in planning that it is tough to have an all-encompassing plan. He defined disaster as when the impact of an event exceeds an area’s capacity, so Molokai could never be prepared enough for a disaster.

Yet the community – even the emergency planners – can’t rely on planning alone. Everyone must come together to work toward preparation and recovery, and Dudoit is confident Molokai will do this.

“No matter what people are arguing over or what controversy is going on, if we have to, Molokai is going to stick together and take care of one another,” Dudoit said.



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