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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of island residents were still without water, electricity, telephone service or permanent shelter when Hawaii Gov. John Waihee declared the emergency response to Hurricane Iniki a ringing success.

"We will probably go down in the history of these types of disasters as having the record for quick response," he told reporters a few days after the storm hit.

In a dimly lit shelter at the center of Lihue, the reaction was somewhat less enthusiastic. Yet even in that shelter's steamy auditorium, temporary home to a battalion of anxious tourists and island residents, the gratitude was unmistakable.

"Thank you for coming," Alfonsa Riola, 79, said to one relief worker. "You are great."

Those were welcome words for officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which in recent months has come under fire for its handling of Hurricane Andrew and the Los Angeles riots. Agency bickering and miscommunication characterized the response to those disasters, and government officials angrily blamed one another for delays in getting help to needy communities.

This time the reaction was swifter, the mishaps fewer--and, with the exception of a brief flash of anger from the Salvation Army--the criticism almost nonexistent. Salvation Army officials this week blasted FEMA for "unconscionable delays" in delivering some relief supplies. By Wednesday, those same officials said they had met with FEMA "in a spirit of mutual cooperation and respect" and were again working side-by-side with the agency.

Still, even as relief experts praised the response to Hurricane Iniki, many warned that what worked in this disaster will not necessarily work in another--such as a major California earthquake. Only rarely do relief officials get the benefit of as many lucky breaks as they did on Kauai. Among them:

* A group of FEMA staffers happened to be at a hurricane conference in Honolulu when Iniki made its turn for Kauai, and they began organizing the relief campaign even before the storm struck here on Sept. 11.

* Hawaii's National Guard was on the scene within hours, largely because training exercises had coincidentally been scheduled for the same weekend. That made it easy to divert troops to the rescue mission.

* Because of a late twist in the hurricane's path, Hawaii's massive military bases were essentially undamaged, leaving military leaders available to coordinate the airlifting of relief supplies and freeing up thousands of troops to help.

The first signs that trouble was brewing for Hawaii came several days before Iniki turned toward the island. As early as Sept. 8, meteorologists picked up the storm developing far south of Hawaii and noted its growing intensity.

By the morning of Friday, Sept. 11, Iniki had taken a hooking turn to the east, a shift that took the heavily populated island of Oahu out of its path but put Kauai squarely on target. Alarms sounded on both islands, and hotel guests were rousted from their beds and herded into shelters.

That early warning gave residents time to stock up on food and water, and allowed some tourists time to catch flights out of the danger zone. By the time Iniki hit on Friday afternoon, most people left on Kauai were hunkered down in their homes or shelters.

When Iniki did strike, it roared across Kauai with an intensity that no living Hawaiian had ever seen on these islands. More than 10,000 buildings were damaged, and some shoreline stretches were all but obliterated.

Kauai, the westernmost of the major Hawaiian islands, sits 80 miles from Oahu, and by the time night fell Friday, it was dark, silent, and almost entirely cut off.

Yet even before midnight, National Guard troops on the island had met with county leaders and confirmed the need to mobilize troops. That message was relayed by radio to Gov. Waihee, who activated the air and Army National Guards. Word went out to the troops that same night.

Since the guard had already scheduled monthly training exercises for that weekend, troops who reported for their duty were simply put on planes and shipped directly to Kauai.

By 5 a.m. Saturday, roughly 12 hours after the storm had passed, 306 National Guard troops had landed in Lihue and were deployed across the island. Another 3,900 stood by to deploy as needed. During the Los Angeles riots, it took more than a day to get the first troops in place, and Los Angeles, unlike Lihue, was never cut off from its neighbors.

Perhaps the most important piece of luck was that Oahu, and with it some of the world's largest military bases, had been largely spared. The Navy's Pacific fleet is headquartered at Pearl Harbor, and next to it is Hickam Air Force Base. All told, 40,000 active-duty troops are based on Oahu.

Those bases provided the staging area for delivering thousands of tons of supplies to Kauai, beginning at daybreak Saturday.

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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