Melvin S. Kaku is director of the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management, a post he has held since December 2007. Previously, Kaku served as the city’s director of Department of Transportation Services, where he oversaw implementation of the city’s expanded multimodal transportation system, which included a fixed guideway rail program and the introduction of the city’s commuter ferry, which entered service in 2007. Before becoming transportation director, Kaku was the director of the Environmental Planning Division of the Pacific Division of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, based at Pearl Harbor. In this capacity, he was planning head of Pearl Harbor’s emergency response team, overseeing preparations for environmental incidents. As an Army Reserve officer, Kaku has supervised the emergency preparedness for his commanding general, and is directly involved in planning for military involvement in responding to natural disasters and civil emergencies. Kaku is a native of Hilo and earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Hawaii.
What are the responsibilities of your office?
I am a member of the mayor’s cabinet, and my responsibility is of course emergency management for the city and county of Honolulu. On behalf of the city I oversee coordination and collaboration among all of the city and county’s first responders as well as second-tier responders. We coordinate with our non-governmental organizations such as Red Cross, the Humane Society, as well as other government entities, both state and federal.
I’m the chair for our regional emergency management planning entity, the Honolulu Urban Area Working Group (HUAWG), but I also chair the committee that oversees grants provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program. In addition to that I chair one of the newer programs, overseeing the federal the Regional Catastrophic Planning Grant Program (RCPGP), which brings together our jurisdiction, with the state and other municipal governments.
What threats and assets make your region unique?
Two of our significant concerns are tsunamis and hurricanes. The tsunami hazard has been in place here in Hawaii for so long that most folks, if you say the word tsunami, they’re up and they’re moving. Since 1946 we’ve had over 220 fatalities here in the state of Hawaii, including six on Oahu. So people thankfully people are aware of the threat even though we don’t get major tsunami events that often. We do back that up of course with public education. Half the year we educate on tsunami hazards, half we educate on hurricanes, and we keep that up every year.
And broader concern is that we’re an island community and relatively isolated. Our closest connection to the mainland is essentially about five hours by air or 2,500 miles away. We have 1.2 million residents just on our island alone. We are a very, very large population on a very, very small footprint, only 600 square miles of landmass. And on a given day we have at least 30,000 transient tourists coming into Honolulu International Airport.
What warning systems and procedures are in place to mitigate the effects of a tsunami?
Under our existing system, the notifications are generated by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, specifically the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which is headquartered here on Oahu. They issue the watches and the warnings. Based on their advisories, we provide an island-wide notification. Those notifications, however, are synchronized with the state and the other counties, because obviously tsunamis will affect the whole state.
Our legacy notification method is a siren system that right now consists of about 181 pole-mounted sirens made by Federal Signal. Our county, along with all of the other counties, tests them regularly on the first working day of the month at 11:45 a.m. We are continuing to expand our coverage on the island because as the population grows and development continues we have to expand our system.
We also have an emergency alert system (EAS) operated in conjunction with the media. As in areas of the country that face other threats, there are radio announcements and a ticker that goes across TV broadcasts. In addition to that we always have what we call the ground notifications where we send out our first responders to go house to house. We are also developing a free text message alert system for the public and government stakeholders.
We discussed community tsunami exercises, but a lot of liability concerns got in the way. So for tsunami events we two statewide tabletop exercises a year, and for hurricanes we do one large exercise. In addition to that, we have a working relationship on an annual basis with the state Department of Education. With the coastal schools we participate in the local tsunami drills. They go through a similar notification and actually walk the students through the entire evacuation sequence.
How does regional planning and grant administration function?
With regard to the HUAWG and the UASI, the Chair’s responsibility is to hold periodic meetings. And generally those are quarterly meetings. Essentially I will conduct a meeting, depending on what the topic is, generally we talk about all the projects that we are working on to assess progresses. The UASI is a little different because that particular structure is more geared toward our first responders and the associated second-tier responders. The third organization which is the RCPGP executive committee made up of 18 individuals, primarily key individuals from around the state and from state government. We hold quarterly meetings also, and I provide the overall administrative support through my grant staff.