Hawaii Thinks About The Future Of Hurricanes


photo courtesy Dan Mangum

Henry Trapido-Rosenthal offers his expertise on the oceans and hurricanes.

The 2017 hurricane season has been relentless, causing destruction throughout the U.S., Caribbean, and Mexico. Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Jose have led to discussions about the role of climate change. The Hawaiian islands have not been hit by a major hurricane since the devastation of Iniki in 1992. But Hawaii residents are starting to plan for the worst-case scenario and ask themselves, “How would the islands handle a serious hurricane?”

“Sea level is the enemy in a hurricane,” said Henry Trapido-Rosenthal, Ph.D., an associate professor of Biology at Chaminade University of Honolulu who’s extensive research has brought him to Bermuda to study oceans and even experience hurricanes first hand.

This past year was the most expensive hurricane season in history. The Bloomberg Business website recently  reported estimates, with the combined total from Harvey, Irma, and Maria at about $202.6 billion.

As the sea levels rise and water warm, the world is creating a breeding ground for storms.

“Hurricanes get their energy from the heat of the ocean, so the likeliness is the hurricanes that develop will become more powerful, and we will start to see more Category 4 storms,” Trapido-Rosenthal said.

Warm water and rising sea levels are a recipe for a killer storm. In an El Niño year, where temperatures are warmer and sea levels continue to rise, Hawaii would be in serious trouble as most of the buildings at sea level would be washed out and destroyed. Many of Hawaii’s buildings and homes are made out of wood that would not last through the high winds and water damage of a Category 4 storm. Even newer homes are only required to withstand Category 3 storms. Trapido-Rosenthal learned the importance of infrastructure while sitting through hurricane Fabian in Bermuda back in 2003.

“The lesson I learned in Bermuda is you can’t run away, so you need to be prepared locally. Evacuation plans need to be local. Things like public schools need to be ready to take residents in,” Trapido-Rosenthal said.

He added that most of the buildings in Bermuda are made out of stone and include hurricane-resistant windows to help ensure the locals safety who can’t leave since they are on an island. As history tends to repeat itself, Hawaii residents fear another Iniki and look to learn from it. Iniki was the deadliest and costliest hurricane to ever strike Hawaii. Iniki caused roughly $2 billion in damages, destroying 1,421 homes with 5,152 homes reporting serious damage according to research done by the state. Storm surges and waves tore apart many structures along Kauai’s southern shore. Iniki was a reminder about the vulnerability of the islands and their infrastructure. What if Iniki had moved a little further east and had a direct hit on Oahu?

According to studies done by Honolulu’s Department of Emergency Services, shelters could take in roughly 30 percent of Oahu’s population of nearly a million, leaving others on their own. In addition, most of Hawaii’s food is imported through the harbors. Because of this, it is urged that people stock up with at least a two-week supply of food.  Areas like Kakaako and Waikiki would be submerged, and the water would have nowhere to run off, creating devastation to both homes and businesses on Oahu.

For Hawaii, the best advice to survive the inevitable storm is to “plan and prepare local,” said Trapido-Rosenthal.