Saturday, September 15, 2018

How Hawaii handles Hurricane Lane holds lessons for Singapore

By Norman Vasu

28 August, 2018


I have been fortunate as an academic studying social resilience to be in Hawaii as it escaped the devastation of a direct hit by Hurricane Lane this month. Lane at its strongest was a Category 5 hurricane with wind speeds exceeding 252 kmh.

The manner in which authorities in Hawaii and its kamaʻāina (residents) prepared for Lane provides many learning points for societies such as Singapore interested in developing resilience in the face of a crisis.

When it was apparent Lane may hit Hawaii, state officials were frank and forthcoming in releasing information through the media. Reporting was factual with neither an attempt to play down the possible impact of the event nor to exaggerate its effects.

Moreover, information disseminated took into account immediacy of need. That is, as the hurricane was an unfolding event with the situation and threat ever changing, the authorities took care to provide adequate information without overwhelming the public.

For example, as the hurricane progressed towards Hawaii, the bulk of the information was on what to expect and how to prepare for it. As it moved even closer, added to the flow of reporting was what to do during a hurricane and what to do after it.

Authorities were keen to stress the seriousness of the event when communicating with the public.

All in, these moves serve three important functions. First, the public knew exactly what they needed to do in the evolving scenarios.

Second, it kept people calm by ensuring they knew what to expect.

Third, it prevented an information vacuum that could have been filled with speculation and rumour. In fact, rumours of a water shut down on the island of Maui were dismissed quickly.

Applied to Singapore, when faced with a crisis, the importance of timely communication of information by official sources is clear.

With Lane approaching, authorities continually communicated the need for the public to be prepared. This included having a hurricane kit that should include items for example such as a torchlight and enough food and water for two weeks and removing outdoor items as they could become projectiles in high winds.

Hawaiians also learned that their bathtubs should be filled so that the water could be used to flush the toilet in the event the water supply is cut off.

There are lessons here for Singapore too. The importance of being prepared in advance cannot be stressed enough.

In today’s just-in-time economy, stocks of essentials may take time to be replenished. One should not expect essentials to be available at a time of their own convenience.

Also, in a crisis, it is highly likely that shops and services will shut down as those in the service industry have attend to their own families and homes.

Extending preparation beyond material necessities, there is profit too in developing potentially helpful skills such as the ability to administer first aid sooner rather than later.

Noah, after all, did not wait for the rains to start building his ark.

During a crisis, it is understandable if one’s focus is on the safety of immediate loved ones. However, success (and resilience) in overcoming a crisis is founded upon extending one’s circle of care.

Society is only stronger when working together.

With Lane, authorities urged communities to check in on and look out for each other.

Besides ensuring that neighbours and friends are prepared, the needs of the vulnerable and weak should be considered too. Businesses can play a part here too.

During the event, I was part of the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, which continually updated staff on what to expect and what to do.

Two days before projected landfall of Lane, the Center shut and a group chat was set up on a popular online messaging platform.

Instructions were given for staff to report their status at specific times of the day. If multiple reporting times were missed, the colleague living in closest proximity would be sent to check on the unresponsive.

The extension of care is important in the case of Singapore.

All communal networks, be they the neighbourhood or workplace for example, have a part to play in a crisis to ensure the wellbeing and safety of as many people in the wider community as possible.

The value of these networks are even more important when related to the previous two points on information and preparation.

Related to information, these networks become conduits for information dissemination. Related to the preparation, these networks ensure there are multiple sources of aid in a crisis rather than placing the provision of help only on authorities.

It is fortunate that preparations for Lane were not fully stress tested, as it was eventually downgraded to Tropical Storm Lane.

The experience does show, for societies such as Singapore, that being informed, preparing in advance, and working together offers much in mitigating the broad spectrum of threats modern societies face today.

How will Singapore know if it is doing enough? The simple answer is that it does not.

There have been no tests yet to make fair assessment. However, as expressed to me by a neighbour after the storm passed, “guess it’s better to over-prepare and not require than the other way around”.


Norman Vasu is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Social Resilience Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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