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Help in a Hurry : Fortunate Circumstances Aided Hurricane Relief Efforts in Hawaii

September 24, 1992|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Navy also dispatched a helicopter assault ship, the USS Belleau Wood, from Pearl Harbor. By Sunday morning it was moored off badly damaged Nawiliwili Harbor and was being used as a platform for helicopter deliveries.

If the Oahu bases had been damaged--or if the Lihue airport on Kauai had lost its runways--it could have been days until the first huge stores of supplies arrived on Kauai.

In fact, the loss of a key military installation was precisely one of FEMA's major problems in reacting to the destruction caused in Florida by Hurricane Andrew.

"With Andrew, we had tremendous damage at Homestead (Air Force Base), and there was so much debris that we couldn't land a jet there," FEMA director Wallace Stickney said in an interview. Here, however, the working airfields on Oahu and Kauai not only enabled officials to get supplies to the disaster areas, they also provided the means to get people out.

Still, the relief effort was not without its glitches.

Three days after the storm, some areas, particularly on the north shore, had not received fresh water.

Re-establishing phone service was a constant challenge, and on Sept. 14, just as phones were being hooked up, a utility crew fixing downed electrical poles cut one of the cables that brought phone service to north Kauai. Phones went dead again.

On Wednesday, as the weather service posted new flash-flood warnings because of thundershowers pelting some of the other islands, local officials complained that the federal government had been too slow in providing 43 million square feet of plastic sheeting needed to cover the island's broken homes.

"We're doing the best we can, but there have been some problems," Lihue Mayor JoAnn A. Yukimura said Wednesday. "We just need people to be as patient as possible. This is going to take time."

Yukimura and her aides overflowed with praise for FEMA and military crews, however, in sharp contrast to the complaints from some Florida officials about the response there.

As relief experts analyzed the early response to Hurricane Iniki, many suggested that it offered lessons for planners preparing for a major California earthquake. Some of those lessons were bureaucratic--models for state and federal cooperation, for instance.

But others were more down to earth. From Florida, FEMA officials learned that tent cities had their drawbacks, in part because residents resented being moved far from the remains of their homes. This time, smaller shelters were dispersed throughout the islands, allowing residents to stay in their own communities.

Also, Kauai's success reinforced the need for disaster education, officials said. Hawaii's residents are well-drilled in hurricane survival--phone books have detailed evacuation maps, and the islands are equipped with Civil Defense warning systems. As a result, Kauai residents knew where to go for shelter and what to do even when communication lines went down.

And FEMA officials said that their recent experience with Hurricane Andrew in Florida and Louisiana, as well as Hurricane Omar on Guam, have helped fine-tune their response techniques.

"We're getting a little better at responding to truly major disasters," said Mike Allan, a FEMA spokesman.

But the praise for this response was tempered by warnings that much of what worked on Kauai would not necessarily work in other areas, most notably California.

Earthquake damage is likely to be spread over a much larger area, military bases are likely to be just as affected as surrounding structures, and, most significantly, the earthquake probably will come without warning.

Rich Eisner, director of the Bay Area Earthquake Project, praised FEMA's reaction to Hurricane Iniki but noted, "You have warning, and you're able to evacuate. You minimize life loss. We're not likely to get that here and that means that not two or three people die, but thousands."

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