By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
More than 18 months ago, a drunken driver destroyed the emergency warning siren on Chin Chuk Road in Hakalau.
Richard Reed, a retiree who lives nearby, took notice. Reed watched the tangled debris of the broken siren remain unrepaired for months. He wondered what would happen if a tsunami occurred and his neighborhood siren was silent. He wondered whether the campers at the mouth of the Hakalau River would be notified in enough time to save their lives.
So Reed contacted state Civil Defense. He was told to call the county. He called Hawaii County Civil Defense in January and spoke to then-Civil Defense Director Quince Mento, who said that while the sirens are monitored by the county, they are ultimately the state’s responsibility.
More recently, Reed buttonholed Mayor Billy Kenoi and Council Chairman Dominic Yagong at a mayoral candidates’ forum. Current County Civil Defense Director Ben Fuata said the mayor called him last week after the forum and told him to look into the matter.
Fuata said that restoring the siren’s warning capability is a “priority project” and the state plans to replace it by the end of the year. He said the state initially was waiting for the attorney general’s office to squeeze the costs of the repair out of the driver that wrecked it. But as time wore on, the state Civil Defense agency decided instead to wait until a scheduled replacement of the siren later this year rather than repair the old one.
“We apologize, but it’s beyond our control,” Fuata said.
The new unit at Hakalau will be solar-powered and is one of 28 siren upgrades on Hawaii Island that are funded and scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, said state Civil Defense spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige.
Kunishige wouldn’t comment on the legal attempts to recover the costs, but said the problem is that the Hakalau siren is “an obsolete mechanical siren and the control box was smashed.” Kunishige said replacement parts are no longer manufactured for the siren’s control system. She said the Hakalau siren will be upgraded as part of the state’s Siren Modernization Project that will include a new pole, controls and communication system along with a new electronic siren.
“We expect this to be upgraded by the end of 2012,” Kunishige said, with funds from the state Capitol Improvement Project funds for sirens.
The tsunami warning system in Hawaii was last used on March 11, 2011, after the 9.0-magnitude Honshu earthquake devastated the northeast coastal region of Japan, generating a powerful tsunami that spread throughout the Pacific. The Big Island reported $30 million of property damage, mostly in West Hawaii, but few injuries and no deaths. On Feb. 26, 2010, an 8.8-magnitude quake in Chile also prompted the sirens to sound, but no damaging waves were reported in the islands.
In addition to the siren warnings, police, Civil Defense and other emergency officials routinely search Hawaii Island coastlines in such situations to warn people of pending dangers, said County Civil Defense Administrator John Drummond. Civil Air Patrol aircraft mounted with loudspeakers and county helicopters are also used to patrol shorelines when tsunami warnings are sounded.
The sirens are tested on the first day of each month at 11:45 a.m. Drummond said the July test revealed that in addition to Hakalau, sirens in Honokaa, Waiaka and Keaau (Shipman Park) were also inoperable. Drummond said the list changes from month to month as the Police Department’s Radio Division personnel attempt to repair the sirens. If they cannot repair a siren, it is reported to the state.
Reed said last week that the smashed box is still there. “It remains the tangled mess it was on Jan. 11, 2011,” he said.
Reed would rather not have to rely solely on emergency officials for alerting people to an oncoming tsunami, however, and said that if a nearby earthquake struck, there might not be enough time for personnel to get to all the people along the coastline. “It would sure be nice to have that siren.”
Email Hunter Bishop at email@example.com.