Surviving TEOTWAWKI in Hawaii, by M. in Honolulu


Hawaii is in a special situation in a potential emergency.  The island chain has seven inhabited islands (of eight major islands) that support a total state population of 1,392,313, a land area of 6,422 square miles, with an overall average density of 217 persons per square mile (11th highest in the U.S., just above Virginia, Ohio and Indiana).  Most of the population (70% or 976,372) is concentrated on Oahu with an area of 597 square miles, an average density of 1,635 per square mile.  The urban core of Honolulu has an estimated population of 340,000 (ranked 55th by population, just above Aurora, Colorado) with an area of 60.5 square miles, or just over 5,600 per square mile, similar to Syracuse, New York or St. Paul, Minnesota.  Hawaii also has about seven million visitors a year, and none of these visitors are prepared for survival in a meaningful way.

Something else differs for Hawaii, since we are 2,400 – 2,600 miles from the nearest US mainland cities and are known as the most remote inhabited island chain in the world, supply chain disruption would have a major impact on life as we know it.  How could we support our large population with supply chain disruptions?  Some background will help us understand what could be done.

Pre-contact survival in Hawaii

In the distant past, before contact (1779) with the west, Hawaii supported a population conservatively estimated at 300,000 but this did not take into account inland populations.  The peak estimates include numbers of 800,000 up to one million. 

This depended on a very organized structure where individual households were merged into a public economy, the well-known ahupua’a system.  This was established from approximately 1200 AD through contact with the west.  In theory these were self-sufficient typically pie-shaped territories that typically extended from mauka (mountains) to makai (the sea), incorporating key resource zones (fresh water, plants, animals, fish, etc.).  Ahupua’a were essentially “estates” often distributed by the rulers to loyal supporters following the successful conclusion of a war of conquest.  Ahupua’a, managed for the chiefs by a specialist class of managers (konohiki), were fundamental to the organization of early historic Hawaiian society.  Moreover, this system replaced the older (and widespread) Polynesian pattern of kin-groups with associated “houses” and ancestral estates.  In reality, the ahupua’a were not all equal in depth and variety of resources, so inter-ahupua’a and inter-island trading of specialized resources did occur with the chief’s permission and control.  So historically, it was possible to support a large population if the systems were in place.  The konohiki regulated what could be harvested and when, in order to maintain the health of the source.

Supply chain disruption

Presently 85 – 90% of all food for Hawaii is “imported” into the state by ship or air.  Although there has traditionally been lots of agricultural land in crops, much of it was dedicated to sugarcane or pineapples, most for export from Hawaii.  With the advent of cheaper labor in other countries such as the Philippines, much (not all) of this dedicated land has been taken out of monoculture agriculture.  Some of it has been converted to truck farms that supply local fruits and vegetables to local users.  Some has converted to coffee, cocoa, cashew, vanilla and other specialty, high-value products.  So supply chain disruption would have an immediate impact to everyone in the population.  Since we are susceptible to hurricanes and tsunamis, most people are prepared to survive 72 hours to seven days.  Hurricane Iniki on 9/11/1992 caused a failure of power systems on Kauai for six weeks, although schools resumed in two weeks.  It did 3 billion dollars in damage.  Many people were in emergency shelters for weeks.

9/11/2001 halted all air travel for Hawaii and most flight did not resume for five days.  Immediately, tourists stopped arriving and the ones already here were stranded for days.  I was on Kauai with friends and family, and the effect was chilling.  We were as far away from 9/11 as one could get in the U.S. and yet we were mesmerized by the event, spending every afternoon in front of the TV catching up on the news.  Many service jobs were immediately laid off; since there was an expected major slow down on people traveling even after the flights were resumed.

Most of our energy comes from oil, with a little coal.  A small percentage of our power comes from burning garbage instead of placing it in landfills.  There are some PV and wind farms on line and they are growing, now above 10% of the total used.  We have a strong military presence in the islands, with all branches represented.

In the event of any event causing a disruption of sea and air transport, the islands would have only a few weeks of food on hand.  Energy supplies would also be limited.  Water is pumped from aquifers beneath the islands and is treated, then pumped into water tanks in the hills to supply pressure to most areas.  In the event of a sustained power outage, use of water must be rationed quickly to provide only critical uses: drinking and cooking.  During a magnitude 6.7 earthquake near Hawaii Island on 10/15/2006 power was disrupted on Oahu (166 miles away) because of generator protection devices being set too sensitively.  This caused an almost 24-hour power failure to some areas, necessitating people using emergency kits to cook food and provide light.  Most all businesses were closed, so it was too late to prepare once the event occurred.  With most predicted events like hurricanes and tsunamis, there is always a last minute scurrying of some people to stock up on groceries, gas and drinking water.

Get prepared

I am prepared for these events on an everyday basis.  As an Eagle Scout I taught survival and preparedness in the 1960s.  As an adult, I have always had an earthquake / hurricane /tornado kit ready.  Most agencies recommend enough to support your family for 72 hours.  Here in Hawaii they recommend 7 – 10 days because of the delays in getting help here in case of a major disaster.
In addition, I have good stocks of food and water as well as the ability to defend and protect them.  I have many alternatives for cooking depending on the need and can cook with wood long term if required.  The shore is two miles away, so fishing is an option if needed.  We have manual transportation (bikes and wagons) if other vehicles run out of fuel.  Bug-out bags are ready and available.  Water purification supplies are at hand.  I won’t go into more detail for OPSEC reasons.

But TEOTWAWKI poses much more serious challenges.  Hawaii would have to immediately make drastic changes in everyday life.  In addition, Hawaii must bump up its level of preparedness, both on a personal, island and state level.  The state and counties have good civil defense / emergency preparedness groups in place because of our isolation.  But they are not preparing for a long, drawn out emergency of weeks, months or years.  Even in a non-emergency situation, critical parts for elevators, generators, airplanes and machinery are in short supply locally.  It can take many weeks to get these parts even with no disruptions to the supply chain.  In case of a TEOTWAWKI situation the parts would be unavailable, maybe for years, if ever.  To improve this, every level of preparedness will need to look at the risks of maintaining critical services and mitigate those risks accordingly.

This is a simple example, for cooking preparedness.  In the case of a few days or even two weeks, an individual can stockpile enough LP gas, butane, charcoal, etc. to get by.  But if the event goes on much longer, the islands will run completely out of these supplies assuming the supply chain is broken.  People need to look to other forms of cooking such as solar or wood.  Almost no one is prepared for this on a long term basis.

In the case of food supplies, it is much more complicated.  Short of relief from the U.S. Mainland or other countries, Hawaii would be in serious trouble.  Even with the farm land that is actively growing, the output is not enough to support the present permanent population, much less visitors who could be stranded here.  It also requires petroleum and power to process, preserve, and transport.  We are lucky in that we can grow most crops year-round.  To date, on my small parcel of land I grow food in a number of raised beds.  I also have fruit trees such as lemon, lime, fig, banana, papaya and breadfruit, as well as containers for tomatoes, garlic, shallots and herbs.  I’ve grown potatoes in buckets as an experiment and will soon try growing rice in 5-gallon buckets.  The raised beds allow me to grow salad greens, collards, kale, beans, sweet potatoes and most other locally-expensive crops.  There are local farms within 3 – 4 miles where bigger plots commercially grow corn, papayas, greens, mangoes, taro and many other items.  There are emerging local aquaponics systems, both personal and commercial.

Of course because we are islands we also have access to the ocean for sustenance.  The historical ahupua’a depended on three key items:  upland / inland forest, lower elevation intensively cultivated areas and a coastal zone, including local fishponds where near shore fish were trapped for harvest on demand.  A few of these fishponds have been restored and are in active use, but many have been destroyed by development.

Even with increased stockpiles of food, Hawaii will need to consider going back to a system similar to the ahupua’a system of old to be self-sufficient.  In particular, the need for fresh water must be dealt with, since growing food also depends on it.  Although many areas of the islands have good rainfall, catchment, processing and distribution of fresh water depend on the use of petroleum products to supply power.  In a TEOTWAWKI situation this would have to change dramatically and quickly.  It would be difficult to prepare individually for this since fresh water is not as easily accessible as in many mainland areas.  Most people here don’t have wells since the fresh water under islands is shaped like a lens and varies based on rainfall and how much is drawn out.  Personally I have a small solar-based desalination / purification system ( that can be used to desalinate a small amount of sea water (transported about 1.5 miles) or purify fresh water found nearby or gathered from rainfall.  Hawaii has no commercial scale desalination capability at present, although pilot experiments have been done.  The island of Lanai is considering setting up such a system.

I even have a small portable PV system that combined with a lead-acid deep draw battery and 12 volt pump can be used to transfer collected rainwater up the hill behind my house to provide a small pressurized system, but I am still trying to acquire a 1,000+ gallon tank to hold the rainwater.  Getting them shipped here to Hawaii is very expensive.  Solving the problem for an individual family is much simpler than for a neighborhood, a town or an ahupua’a or an island, much less a state.  But it is not enough to prepare yourself and your family when living on an island.  Stocking up a good idea, but will not be enough to weather a long-term emergency or break in the supply chain.

Permaculture principals may be a key part of the answer, since they take a long-term view of how you build a system and how to be sustainable.
Of all the areas in the United States, Hawaii needs to internalize the goal to improve both our survivability and sustainability in order to weather the future, TEOTWAWKI or not.

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