Hurricane Iniki, which struck the island of Kauai on September 11, 1992, was the third-most damaging hurricane in U.S. history and provides some valuable insights into how people react when an entire self-contained community loses most of their creature comforts. By way of background, Kauai is the fourth largest island in the Hawaiian Archipelago. It, along with a small, privately-owned island off its western coast make up the County of Kauai. The population in 1992 was about 50,000.
On September 11, 1992, Hurricane Iniki made a direct hit on the island with winds upward of 150 miles per hour. Approximately 70 percent of the buildings on Kauai were destroyed or damaged. Telecommunications and electricity were lost and not entirely restored to all areas for six months. Due to early warning and good Civil Defense planning, there were only a handful of deaths attributed to the hurricane. The hurricane missed the rest of the state except for brushing the leeward coast of Oahu.
National Guard troops from other islands were on Kauai eight hours after the hurricane had passed. Within three days, there were approximately 1,000 National Guard personnel on the island. The command and control element reported directly to the mayor of Kauai County and to the Governor. These lessons learned are from the personal recollections of a member of the command and control element.
Most striking was the number of relief agencies that arrived on-island within a week to two weeks after the storm. At one point there were 5,000 relief workers representing 80 different governmental agencies and private organizations supporting a population of 50,000. The 1:10 ratio of relief workers to residents was one reason that there was almost no looting or lawlessness in the aftermath of the storm. This ratio of 1:10 would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in more densely populated areas or disasters that affect larger geographical regions (as we saw following Hurricane Katrina) . In New Orleans, the military response was initially focused on rescue or recovery and not on law enforcement.
Military planning is built around “operating systems” i.e. maneuver, communications, etc. To facilitate planning, the operating systems inherent in all civilian communities were identified, assessed and tracked to determine their current status to coordinate support and to help estimate how long before each system would be brought back on-line.
These systems were:
- Communications and electricity
- Sewage treatment and waste disposal
- Traffic control and public safety
- Medical Services
Each of these operating systems presented unique challenges and insights as they relate to disaster planning.
Water – There are few private wells on the island. The County owns the water system, which consists of reservoirs in the mountains and some wells that service the drier parts of the island. The first priority for Civil Defense was to install generators at all pumping stations. In most areas water was back on-line within 3-to-4 days.
Food – MREs, supplied by the Federal government, were available within a few days after the storm. They became the main source of calories for most people. However, the novelty of eating MREs quickly wore off and distributing food became a high priority. Feeding stations serving a hot lunch were set up at various locations around the island using military cooks and idle chefs from the various resort hotels. However, headcounts changed daily and it was difficult to ensure that sufficient food was available at each location.
Communications and electricity – In 1992, there were few cellular phones. Nearly everyone relied on land lines for their telephone service. The hurricane downed perhaps a third of telephone/electrical poles on the island. Crews were flown in from as far away as the east coast and worked months to repair the damage. Replacement poles were obtained from the mainland and shipped to Kauai. Reportedly, the base yards in several western states were emptied of poles to support the recovery operation for a community of 50,000. It should be noted that Hurricane Andrew had hit Florida three week before Iniki and the two areas were competing for some high priority items like telephone poles and the, much prized, blue plastic tarps used as temporary patches for leaking roofs. There were microwave relay sites on the island to transmit communications signals from Kauai to the other islands and, then, worldwide. Some of these sites had only minor damage and were quickly repaired. Others were destroyed and replacement equipment was flown in from Oahu or the mainland. Within a week. telephone service was available to the public via mobile phone trailers that were set up around the island. However, telephone service to individual homes, like electricity, was delayed for up to six months as crews replaced downed poles.
Sewage treatment and waste disposal – Kauai is a mix of public sewer systems and [private] septic systems. FEMA provided generator support to the Kauai County sewage treatment facilities and sewage never became a major health issue. Waste disposal was more challenging. The hurricane created a lot of destruction and debris. County sanitation workers had been furloughed to take care of their families. The County landfills were initially closed. People began to dump trash along side the roads. About three weeks after the storm over 1,500 active duty soldiers were brought to the island with their equipment and went door-to-door cleaning up yards and hauling away debris. A new landfill with an expected life of ten years that had been opened shortly before the storm was completely filled within a couple of months.
Traffic control and public safety – It became apparent within the first few days that the Kauai Police Department was overwhelmed. A decision was made to free-up police officers whenever feasible to take care of their own families. Restoration of electricity to key intersection was given high priority so that traffic signals would be operational. Interestingly, there was little civilian traffic for the first week since few businesses were operating and most of the roads were blocked by downed poles. A military police unit was flown in to provide traffic control as needed. However, as conditions improved, people adapted to driving without traffic lights and were generally courteous to other drivers when arriving simultaneously at intersections. Few accidents were reported. Looting was minimal due to the large presence of the military. The Honolulu SWAT deployed to Kauai and operated at night in high priority areas such as near jewelry stores, banks, etc. Two looters were arrested within the first week following the storm. In what amounted to lighting justice, they were charged, tried and convicted, and incarcerated within a week. The case was widely publicized and served as a great deterrent. The fact that access to the island was tightly controlled for the first month also stopped any outsiders from taking advantage of the situation. The lesson learned is that highly visible military and police presence coupled with quick convictions served to keep criminal activity at a manageable level. However, the local police department, as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is probably incapable of maintaining law and order.
Medical – All medical personal who live on Kauai were affected by the hurricane and, with the exception of emergency rooms, normal medical support ceased. State and County Civil Defense had air evacuated most expectant mothers and dialysis patients to Oahu a few hours before the hurricane struck. Interviews with doctors from the various relief organizations uncovered a pattern of medical emergencies. The first few days saw broken bones from falling off roofs, nail punctures and similar wounds. After about a week, diabetics and people on mood altering prescription drugs started to show up at the clinics looking for medication. These were followed by people who had ran out of medicine for chronic maladies like high blood pressure and epilepsy.
Drug addicts presented a special problem in that their regular supply was disrupted. No illegal drugs were getting on the island because the airfields and seaports were controlled by the military. Initially, addicts turned to known drug dealers and, if necessary, broke into the dealers’ homes looking for drugs. As a last resort, they started to appear at medical aid stations. Typically this occurred 7-10 days after the storm.
Medical challenges provide some of the most relevant lessons learned for people interested in preparing for a breakdown in local, regional or national government. As any infantryman will tell you, the welfare and location of the unit medic is always on your mind. If you don’t believe you have any skills to offer a group, you should develop your first aid and medical skills. There will always be a need for a “doc” to take care of group members. Research and build your own medical kit. Talk to emergency room workers and find out how they triage incoming patients. Research and memorize the checklists that first responders use as they assess patient needs and prioritize casualties. Research the process doctors use to diagnose patient complaints and symptoms. Medical equipment and a confident air could be your passport to safety. One of the most prized items turned out to be generators. Without the immediate influx of generators from FEMA and the military, life of Kauai after the hurricane would have been much tougher. Generators pumped water, cleaned sewage, provided electricity to medical facilities, and refrigerated perishable food that had been barged and flown to the island. In many instances, relatives of Kauai resident living on the other islands or the mainland bought generators and have them shipped to the Kauai. Military and civilian generators arriving at the port on Kauai were occasionally stolen by enterprising homeowners who simply backed their trucks up and drove off with a generator that had been off-loaded and staged for pickup by the legal owner. Apparently some local residents felt that it was worth the risk to provide refrigeration and lights to their families. The willingness to risk jail to obtain a generator can likely be traced to the desire to eat fresh food. MREs quickly lost their savor, especially for children.
Kauai residents would tell you that the most stressful time came immediately after the hurricane when all communication was lost and people were restricted to their immediate neighborhoods by the downed poles and trees. They simply did not know if they were going to get any help because they did not know whether the other islands had been hit by the storm. A communication plan that is well thought-out ahead of time would be a great psychological boost following a catastrophe. In addition to a good electronics, something as simple as a bulletin board that is updated every few hours would help the cohesiveness and bonding of the group.
Finally, I need to say something about the way people reacted and adjusted following the storm. In 1992, people in their 70s and 80s had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They proved to be tougher than one would expect . They usually had a better attitude and often adapted better to living without television, electrical light and refrigeration than did many younger people. Military people found the duty easier than most field training exercises. Military veterans had often endured tougher times and also quickly adapted. In general, the more outdoor oriented people were, the easier their transition and recovery. Some folks could not cope with the dramatic changes in their routine and committed suicide. Others left the island; never to return.