By Sophie Cocke
State lawmakers introduced a resolution this week urging the state Department of Defense to update disaster preparation plans for Hawaii in the event of a nuclear attack amid escalating political tensions between the United States and North Korea.
State and county agencies haven't updated such plans, which include radiation survival tips, in decades. Nor has the government maintained any of the hundreds of fallout shelters that had been identified as of the 1980s.
Meanwhile, nuclear arms experts have said that North Korea either has, or could soon have, the ability to launch nuclear missiles at Hawaii that carry the same destructive force as the bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, as the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported earlier this month.
The growing nuclear threat, paired with President Donald Trump's recent statements to the effect that the United States would in some way deal with North Korea if China doesn't, have raised concerns among some state lawmakers and emergency management officials that Hawaii and the nation could be returning to an era when the threat of nuclear war was a part of daily life.
"This is uncomfortable to think about, but we have a whole generation of people growing up that haven't ever really thought about these things, and they need to be educated about the reality and survivability and what we can do," said Rep. Matt LoPresti (D, Ewa Villages-Ocean Pointe-Ewa Beach), vice chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, during a Thursday hearing on the resolution. "I'm especially concerned when we have a rogue state with nuclear ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) capabilities. Mix that with blustery foreign policy, then you are going to have state legislatures talking about fallout shelters again."
The seven-member committee voted unanimously in favor of the resolution, which still needs further House and Senate approvals.
Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe) said she was reminded of the bomb drills she used to do in school.
"We would hide under our desks to survive an atomic bomb, which was foolish, of course; I mean, it was foolish to think we could," she said.
Officials from the state Department of Defense, including Toby Clairmont, executive officer of the department's Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said that they supported the resolution.
Clairmont told lawmakers that it would probably take years and require funding to revamp Oahu's fallout shelter plan, which was last updated in 1985 and is now obsolete, as well as plans for the neighbor islands.
Oahu, with its concentration of high-level military commands, is considered a strategic and symbolic target for an attack, but the neighbor islands are also considered to be at risk, particularly from the fallout of radiation.
Lawmakers also want defense officials to look at alternative port sites, including on the neighbor islands, in the event Honolulu Harbor is destroyed.
If North Korea were to launch a nuclear missile at Hawaii, the state would have only about 20 minutes to prepare and alert residents, Clairmont said. Very few structures near such a device would survive the blast or shockwave, and most preparation would involve helping those who survive the initial blast deal with the fallout from the radiation.
When a nuclear bomb explodes on or near the ground, it sucks up tons of earth into a fireball that mixes with radioactive material from the explosion and falls back to the ground in dust-like particles. The radiation can be carried long distances and at high levels causes death or serious injury, as well as increased risk of cancer.
Clairmont said that people would need to stay in fallout shelters for about two weeks after an attack.
"It decays relatively rapidly, that is the good news," he said, of the radiation. "The bad news is the detonation -- very little warning. Wherever you stand, you go where you can, even if that means laying in the gutter in the street or crawling behind your car to see if you can survive that initial blast. It's a grim scenario."
Government officials had identified hundreds of structures, such as parking garages, on Oahu that could serve as fallout shelters as of 1985, when the Community Shelter Plan was last updated. But officials no longer know whether all of those buildings and structures still exist or whether they would be strong enough to serve as shelters. The shelters are also no longer equipped with supplies, such as food and water.
At the time of the plan's last update, most areas of Oahu lacked sufficient shelter space, and Clairmont said it's unlikely that enough shelter could be provided. Disaster preparation would include educating people about how they could protect themselves in their homes.
"The likelihood of government, whether it be the county, state or federal government, to be able to successfully shelter as large and diverse of a population as we have in the time frame we have -- you are looking at a very low likelihood of that, even if you had all the funds in the world available," he said.
Clairmont cautioned that reviving the plans could cause public fear and anxiety.
"It's kind of a sensitive issue. When we start doing stuff, people start wondering -- well it must be a high enough concern, a great enough risk for you to be doing that," he said. "For us, we try to keep things kind of under the radar for a while, but we appreciate that this is probably not a bad time to begin raising the issue with the public and with the Legislature."
LoPresti, the state representative said that the intent isn't to scare people.
"Part of the impetus of this is certainly not to instill fear, but to let the public know that people are preparing and try to provide some comfort that government is taking some effort to protect them and protect survivors in the case of a worst-case scenario," he said.
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