A time to prepare: Lessons from Hurricane Iniki

A chart showing Hurricane Iniki's path through the Hawaiian Islands, Sept. 1992. The storms path was originally projected to continue West before it unexpectedly turned towards Kauai. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew West/Released)

A chart showing Hurricane Iniki’s path through the Hawaiian Islands, Sept. 1992. The storms path was originally projected to continue West before it unexpectedly turned towards Kauai. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew West)

On Sept. 10, 1992, Jimmy Garland was a Radioman 3rd Class at Coast Guard Group Honolulu, now Coast Guard Sector Honolulu. He had been tracking Hurricane Iniki to the south as it moved westward and projections indicated the storm wouldn’t affect the Hawaiian Islands.

“I got off duty that day and watched the 10 o’clock news that night on KHON,” said Garland. “Joe Moore, who’s still a newscaster today in 2019, reported the latest satellite image had Hurricane Iniki tracking a turn to the north heading straight for Oahu. I remember thinking we were not ready for that; at all.” Garland is now the district’s hurricane preparedness specialist and a commander in the Coast Guard Reserve.

Like many storms, Iniki had been closely watched, and it was assumed it would miss the islands. The next day Hurricane Iniki took a sharp turn north and barreled into Kauai, causing the deaths of seven people and over $1.8 billion in damage. Kauai may have taken the brunt of the storm’s wrath, but none of the Hawaiian Islands were left unaffected. The storm damaged 14,350 homes and destroyed 1,421 others, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Disaster Survey Report released the following year.

Near Port Allen, Kauai, wind speeds were reported up to 143 mph and a sea-level nearly 30-feet above normal. At the pier in Nawiliwili, the Coast Guard Cutter Point Harris was undergoing maintenance and was inoperable when the storm hit.

“A catamaran was picked up at about two in the afternoon on Sept. 11, 1992, and went through the bridge of the Point Harris and destroyed the cutter,” said Garland.

During significant storms, Coast Guard ships and aircraft are sent out of the storm’s path for protection. They are on standby. As a storm approaches, it diminishes the response capabilities of these units. Once the storm arrives, the ability to respond to incidents is severely hindered, after the storm responders are deployed to respond.

“Kauai was devastated,” said Garland. “Every single telephone pole on the island of Kauai came down, and they were cut off from the rest of the island chain. Hawaii is a hub and spoke system. All goods come into Honolulu Harbor on container ships, and roughly 80 percent of their cargo is food.”

This hub and spoke system, where goods come into the port of Honolulu and are then transported to the other islands, is susceptible to interruptions should disaster strike. Incidents such as significant hurricanes present a dangerous risk to the island chains infrastructure. A mobile offload crane is kept on the island and can be used at Pearl Harbor or other unaffected piers as a contingency. However, the rate of cargo offload is significantly reduced from the fixed cranes in Honolulu Harbor.

The responsibility to protect Hawaii’s harbors falls to Capt. Arex Avanni, the Coast Guard Captain of the Port (COTP) in Hawaii and commander of Coast Guard Sector Honolulu. Before the arrival of a storm, a series of up to five port conditions are systematically implemented by the COTP to minimize damage to the infrastructure of the harbor and ensure the port reopens as quickly as possible. This capability also allows maritime system operators to plan and maximize cargo operations without risking infrastructure.

The Port Conditions are:

  • Condition Hurricane Season Preparedness (V): Seasonal readiness, 1 June – 30 Nov.
  • Condition Whiskey (IV): The ALERT condition in which winds above 39 mph within 72 hours.
  • Condition X-Ray (III): The READINESS condition in which winds above 39 mph within 48 hours.
  • Condition Yankee (II): The WARNING condition in which winds above 39 mph within 24 hours.
  • Condition Zulu (I): The DANGER condition in which winds above 39 mph within 12 hours and until the storm has passed and is no longer a threat.

By using this system, the Coast Guard can deliver a predictable and dependable schedule the commercial maritime community and public may use to prepare both themselves and their property and to understand the measures being taken for the protection of life and property in the state.

As seen with the Point Harris during Hurricane Iniki, even vessels in protected harbors may be damaged and rendered inoperable. If a ship as large as a commercial car carrier were to sink within Honolulu Harbor, it could jeopardize the entire island chain’s food supply. By Condition Zulu, the captain of the port will have required all large vessels to leave the ports to minimize the storm’s impact on the harbor’s infrastructure.

Even with these precautions, there is no way to protect the ports entirely when faced with the might of a hurricane such as Iniki. Following the storm, it may take days or weeks to repair the port facilities. According to Garland, every person should have 14 to 21 days of food on hand and a gallon of water for each person per day. It’s important to have medications on hand and plan for pet needs.

“Personally for my family what we have is two cases of MREs (meals ready to eat) and a tub of drinking water,” said Garland. “During Hurricane season toilet paper and rice are the first things to run out so just have those on hand and keep a little bit to the side.”

Garland, who has lived in Hawaii since February 1991, has served in the Coast Guard for more than 30 years – 15 years on active duty before entering the Coast Guard Reserve. During his time in the Reserve, he was also a City and County lifeguard. From his experience, the most crucial advice to heed is to take every storm seriously and prepare your families — have a family plan, think about keiki and kapuna, include water, food, and medications.

“Have everything now because two days out from a storm is when the shelves become empty,” said Garland. “I went to the Times supermarket over in Diamondhead area, I think it was a day before Hurricane Lane last year, and everything was empty. It didn’t even matter what it was, even things that had nothing to do with provisions. Everything was taken off the shelves.”

Editors’ note: As the remnants of Tropical Storm Erick pass the Hawaiian Island chain, offshore and harbor areas may experience strong winds and surge. Vessel and facility operators are urged to prepare for these conditions and continue to exercise caution during operations. Tropical Storm Flossie will continue to create swells affecting portions of the Hawaiian Islands as it approaches over the next couple of days, potentially producing dangerous surf conditions, mainly along east and southeast facing shores. Waterway users are encouraged to use caution in these dangerous conditions and to stay off the water when hurricane and tropical storm force winds are present.

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