BY RON ELAND
North Hawaii News
For most Big Island residents who have lived here for a while, that number is significant and brings back a flood of memories.
Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of the 6.7-magnitude earthquake with shook the entire state. It was followed just minutes later by a 6.0 temblor. The epicenter was about 13 miles north of Kona and hit on a Sunday morning at 7:07 a.m. It wasn’t hard to imagine what may have happened had they hit just a day later when schools and office buildings would have been filled. This may have been the reason so few injuries were reported.
But damage was another story.
Many home owners reported damaged walls, ceilings and foundations — not to mention anything and everything which could fall off a wall or bookcase. Two of the most heavily damaged buildings in North Hawaii were the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and the Kalahikiola Congregational Church in Kapaau. (Messages left for both were not returned). Those two facilities, along with others such at the Hisaoka Gymnasium in Kohala, have since been repaired and life has returned to normal. In all, it’s estimated the quakes caused more than $200 million in damages.
Last week, Mayor Billy Kenoi, Rep. Cindy Evans and County Civil Defense Director Quince Mento were asked about their experiences that day and if the county is better prepared now in the event of another earthquake.
“Our communities have a long history if pitching in to help one another during disasters that goes back to the tsunamis of 1946 and 1960, and beyond,” said Kenoi, who at the time was part of the Mayor Harry Kim administration. “It was the same after the Kiholo earthquake. We saw neighbors pulling together to repair or replace the homes of elderly residents that were damaged or destroyed. We saw contractors who worked for little or nothing to help their neighbors to repair damage. Engineers flew in from other islands to help assess damage to businesses and homes, which helped to speed the arrival of recovery funding.”
He said the island’s communities have always been ready to help whether it was the days, weeks and months following the quakes to the March 11 tsunami in Kona.
“We live in a community where people care for one another, and we should be very proud of that,” he said.
Kenoi said a great deal has happened since the 2006 earthquakes to make the island more prepared for any kind of disaster. Since the earthquake, the county purchased and distributed backup power generators for eight radio stations to prevent the kinds of communication problems experienced in 2006. The radio stations went dark, and it was very difficult to get information out. Today, all of the radio broadcast groups have been provided back-up power.
“We have also aggressively pursued new technology that offers other ways of pushing out information in an emergency,” he said. “We now have 4,000 residents signed up to receive text messages to notify them of emergency situations, and more than 5,000 people who receive email notifications. That wasn’t available to our residents in 2006. When we use a variety of ways to inform the public, more and more people get the information they need to make good decisions and protect their families.
“We also purchased six backup generators for the main water wells across the island to allow them to continue to operate if we ever again lose power across the island. Even if the power system fails, those generators will allow the water department to continue to deliver water, from Hawi and South Kohala to Hilo and South Kona.”
Meanwhile, he said the police have updated their tsunami plans and standardized their plans across the state in ways that will allow public safety crews from other islands to move in quickly and efficiently to provide assistance and relief on the Big Island.
As for ongoing county recovery projects from the 2006 earthquake, Kenoi said the Honokaa Gym is the last one. The work there has been delayed because the leaking roof needs to be fixed before they can repair the insulation that was damaged in the earthquake.
For Evans, who was in her Waikoloa Village home that day, the earthquakes have left a lasting impression on her in more ways than one.
“When the first one hit we all ran outside,” she said. “We went back in and the second one hit. For me, it was one of those moments. I swear I have PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result. That second one really put me over the edge. Now, I get very upset when there’s any type of shaking.”
Evans said one reason why may be because it wasn’t the first time she had been in the middle of a major quake. In 1989, she was in the upper deck of Candlestick Park for Game 3 of the World Series when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck San Francisco.
“After it hit, there was just this dead silence which seemed to last forever,” she said.
Because of Hawaii’s remote location, Evans said residents know that even though help is on the way, they have to be self-suffient and help one another through times of natural disaster. As a result of the quakes, groups such as Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) have grown by leaps and bounds and are there to help first responders.
“People learned a lot from the quakes,” she said. “We learned how to take care of our own backyard. The earthquakes brought some good and that’s that we all realized that it was time to kick it up a notch and be ready in the event it happens again.”
One of the biggest complaints heard by many — including Evans — in the aftermath of Oct. 15, 2006 quakes was the amount of time it was taking to make repairs. And, the big question was often, who was going to pay for it — the individual, county, state or federal government.
Within days, members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were on the island ready to help. In most cases, residents could apply for federal funding for repairs after filling out the paperwork and in most cases, were reimbursed for any work done. But Evans said that was often easier said than done.
“FEMA will reimburse you but for most lower to middle income families, where do you get the cash to it?” she said.
At the time of the quake Mento was in charge of support services for the Hawaii County Fire Department. He was at home in his kitchen when the first quake struck.
“It was a little nuts to say the least,” he said of the morning of the quake. “It was crazy at dispatch — 911 was ringing off the hook.”
He said the majority of the calls were from residents whose water heaters and propane tanks had been knocked off their foundation.
Mento said a couple things were in their favor starting with the fact that it happened at 7 a.m. on a Sunday and not during work and school hours during the week. And, he said because of building codes, most of the structures on the island (specifically the newer ones) are able to sustain earthquakes of that magnitude.
Mento also said an earthquake is the one natural disaster civil defense fears the most for one specific reason.
“There’s no lead time,” he said. “It happens without warning and then you have to deal with it.”
Like Kenoi, Mento said that over the last five years, the county has been diligent is improving itself in several areas in preparation for another earthquake or any other natural disaster.
So, is the island better prepared now compared to five years ago?
“Most certainly,” he said. “Our roads and bridges are better prepared, community involvement has greatly increased thanks to CERT and our communication capabilities have gotten much better. And during a time of natural disasters, communication is key.”
Residents’ thoughts compiled by Cathey Tarleton.