When it comes to climate change, City & County of Honolulu Department of Emergency Services (DES) director Jim Howe is already taking steps to deal with what’s coming.
“This is here. This is real. We have a choice. … We can adapt or just kinda wait until we get our okoles kicked,” he said.
As the city’s former longtime ocean safety chief and DES director since 2017, Howe has spent a lot of time thinking about the many ways people can get hurt or killed on the island. And he’s keenly aware of the new challenges climate change is likely to pose.
“We’re kind of in the life and death business here. We see death quite frequently. How to manage that keeps me up at night quite frankly,” he told the city’s Climate Change Commission at its June 5 meeting.
With rising temperatures expected to bring more intense storms to the islands and raise sea levels, he said “our ocean conditions are going to become more hazardous,” adding that drowning is the leading cause of visitor deaths and will continue to be.
As a first step, his department has devised a prototype design for mobile lifeguard stands. Waves have already stolen at much of Kualoa Beach Park on the windward side of O`ahu over the years, and a portable stand would likely be necessary to continue to support lifeguards there, as well as other beaches. “The tower at Kailua, we’ve moved it three times. At Sunset Beach, three times. The ones at Waikiki are beginning to fail,” he continued.
The new portable towers, which he said will be equipped with solar power, will allow the city to maintain ocean safety as shorelines continue to erode.
Fixed structures on the beaches are not sustainable “and even now we are at great risk,” he said. Severe erosion at Sunset Beach, for example, recently left a lifeguard station there on the verge of a 30-foot sand cliff, forcing the city to remove it for safety reasons. “That impacts [the lifeguards’] ability to do their job now,” he said.
When it comes to privately owned structures near the shore, he views any protective hardening, such as a seawall, as an “attractive nuisance” that can lead to injury and death.
“We will have to try to manage those … try to police it. That usually doesn’t work. We can try to educate people to stay away from it. That usually doesn’t work,” he said. Given that, he suggested retreating from the shoreline and demolishing abandoned structures was probably best.
Howe’s ocean-related concerns go well beyond beach erosion caused by rougher waves and higher seas. Storm flooding will further erode beaches and affect nearshore water quality, he said.
“In the soils here, we have Pseudomonas,” he said, referring to a bacteria that can cause deadly infections to the immunocompromised. “We also have staph” — another pathogen — “in the soil. We’re going to start seeing some chronic health issues,” he warned.
A 2016 article, “Climate Change: A Public Health Challenge and Opportunity for Hawai’i,” by Samantha Hudson of the American Institute of Certified Planners and published in the Hawai`i Journal of Medicine and Public Health, noted that sewage discharges due to storm flooding can also send pathogens into the ocean, triggering beach closures to protect public health and safety.
To Howe, the problem seems almost intractable. “How do we keep people from going into the ocean? It has economic impacts. What does that do to our visitor industry?” he asked.
He noted that the state is starting to speak up more when it’s not safe to go into the ocean, but there’s no real way to stop people from going in.
“We’re going to have to double down now [on educating people] if were going to have a successful visitor industry. … Otherwise we’re going to get a reputation as a great place to come to get hurt,” he said.
Howe pointed to a very recent example of the critical health issues that can arise after an extreme flooding event in an area where the only road in or out becomes impassable. After severe flooding effectively cut off the North Kaua`i towns of Wainiha and Ha`ena from the rest of the island in April, Howe said doctors had to be flown in to set up a clinic. With so many cesspools in the area, Howe said there was a concern about children contracting bacterial gastroenteritis, which can cause vomiting, severe abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. There were also a lot of septic wounds, he added.
“We look at Puerto Rico” — which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017 — “as an example. If something like Kaua`i would happen for a longer term … negative impacts of diabetes [would] cause of lot of deaths,” he said. In Puerto Rico, the New York Times reported that there was a 46 percent increase in death due to diabetes last year compared to the two previous years. “Many people with diabetes had difficulty keeping insulin refrigerated, and some had trouble maintaining special diets,” the paper reported.
Having adequate medicines is a key component in hurricane preparedness, but is never talked about, Howe said. People are told to have a 14 day supply of food and water, but there is a substantial portion of the community that is 65-years old or older that also require medicines, he said.
“About 35 percent of the population on O`ahu. [That’s] a lot of medically fragile folks who are aging in place at home,” he said, adding that at the same time, “we have medical supply shortages. Nationally, not just here.”
“Right now, we have a very good supply chain with Amazon and UPS,” he said, expressing his worry that relying too much on home-delivered medicine may lead to the closure of local pharmacies, “which means we’ll have less supply on island in case of emergency. We saw this happen on Kaua`i. The postal services could not deliver … The medicines were being airlifted in. … This is something that’s an emerging trend. How that’s going to play out is hard to say.”
Howe’s bleak assessment prompted commissioner Victoria Keener to question the finding of a journal article, published last year, which concluded last year that climate change didn’t pose a significant public health risk to the state.
“After hearing this kind of thing …,” Keener said, referring to Howe’s litany of concerns.
“I might differ,” Howe finished.
The paper — by Deon Canon (Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies), Frederick Burkle (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative), and Rick Speare (Tropical Health Solutions Pty. Ltd.) — analyzed potential health risks posed by air pollution, extreme heat and weather, and ultraviolet radiation. The abstract for the article, “Health Security in Hawaii by 2050: The Physical Effects of Climate Change,” published in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, stated, “[G]eneric climate change impacts are often used to justify actions without adequate supporting local evidence. … Hawai`i’s natural geography, robust water, and sanitation infrastructure render the islands less vulnerable to many of the often-mentioned climate change threats.” The authors called the health security threat posed to Hawai`i by climate change over the next 35 years “slight in most areas and moderate with regard to ecosystem health.”
Even so, Howe pointed out that communities across the island — especially those in danger of losing access to critical services if a single road washes out — are working with government agencies to establish emergency preparedness teams.
“My concern is the North Shore with 20 to 30 thousand visitors going out there a day. It’s becoming quite crowded. If we were to have some kind of shock, many would not get back to Waikiki,” he said, adding that the Leeward coast is also seeing more and more visitors.
Similar to the Ha`ena, the Leeward Coast only has one way in and out: Farrington Highway. It also lacks a major emergency medical facility and many of the evacuation shelters are located in close proximity to the ocean, Hudson stated in her article.
“This vulnerability compounds with the social vulnerability of Wai`anae Coast residents, which includes a large proportion of elderly (over 65), youth (under 18), and people living below the poverty line. Flooding from storm surge and heavy rains have led to closures of Farrington Highway in the past. Sea level rise and more extreme storm events will increasingly contribute to erosion of the roadway,” she wrote, suggesting that cross-sector planning with various state, county, and private entities was needed to assesses critical infrastructure vulnerabilities holistically.
Unless these vulnerabilities are addressed, Howe sees potential conflicts during emergencies, given the increasing number of visitors to areas where there may be nowhere for them to go.
“How do we tell our community to take these folks in?” Howe asked the commission. After the floods on Kauai, he said, there was some friction (as well as some fist fights) between locals and outsiders, but after a few days, they eventually bonded and “got past the ‘who’s going to get out first’ mentality,” he said.
Sea Level Rise Guidance
At its June 5 meeting, the commission unanimously approved its official guidance on sea level rise, which includes several recommendations aimed at preventing the kinds of disasters Howe described earlier that day. Commissioner Chip Fletcher said they were the most comprehensive sea level rise recommendations in the United States.
How, when, or whether city agencies will take steps to codify any of the recommendations remains to be seen. But if they’re ever implemented, they would achieve some of the goals of bills that the state Legislature failed to pass this year.
The recommendations call for “disclosure on all real estate sales, City Property Information Sheets, and all other real estate transactions” of lands that fall within the 3.2 ft. and 6 ft. sea level rise exposure areas (SLR-XA) identified in last year’s Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report.
They also called for the city amend its special management area (SMA) boundaries to include lands in the 3.2 SLR-XA that aren’t already, and adopt the 3.2 ft. and 6 ft. SLR-XAs as hazard overlays for planning purposes, including in the general plan and sustainable community development plans. Basically, the recommendations call on all relevant city agencies to use the 2017 Hawaiʻi Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report and online Viewer, for planning and land use regulation revision in general, as well as infrastructure assessment, “to mitigate impacts to infrastructure and critical facilities related to sea level rise.”
The commission’s final recommendation: that these agencies be given the resources and capacity necessary to implement the recommendations “and proactively plan for sea level rise, as it will rapidly become a major challenge to city functions.”
The approved recommendations are fewer and intended to be more workable than the set Fletcher and commission chair Makena Coffman unveiled in early May. (For more on this, see, “City Climate Change Commission Drafts ‘Revolutionary and Inconvenient’ Rules,” from our June 2018 issue.)
— Teresa Dawson