Issue 18.2: April/May 2015

Dr. Disaster

Hawai`i's own Karl Kim has the Rx for surviving earthquakes, eruptions, floods and fires
Story by Curt Sanburn.

In 1983 Kīlauea began pumping fiery rivers of lava into old villages and modern subdivisions in the Puna district of Hawai‘i Island.

In 1984 a rare eruption on the summit of Mauna Loa sent lava to within four miles of Hilo, Hawai‘i Island’s biggest city. 1984 is also the year that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad student named Karl Kim arrived in Honolulu to finish his doctorate and teach urban planning at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

“Those two events have been with me my whole career,” Kim tells me now. “It intrigues me how people in Hawai‘i and elsewhere make decisions related to risky, dangerous environments.” Kim, now 57 and a professor of urban and regional planning at UH Mānoa, leads the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center (NDPTC), which trains first responders and others across the nation to manage natural disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and, yes, volcanic eruptions. Since starting the center six years ago, Kim’s leadership and prodigious research led last year to his election as chair of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, a seven-member group of federally funded disaster preparedness training centers nationwide. In a young century already scarred by the traumas of 9/11, hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, droughts, forest fires, floods, tornadoes and Ebola, Karl Kim is suddenly a national figure, Hawai‘i’s own Dr. Disaster.

In a suite of offices in downtown Honolulu, Kim’s team of twenty-odd NDPTC staffers go about their business. The reception area, decorated for the holidays, displays an edible tabletop diorama of a coastal disaster scene, with wreckage of a few low-lying, graham-cracker shacks surrounding a sturdy, intact “NDPTC” gingerbread house. A Lego figurine stands in front of it with a tiny, cut-out photo of Kim’s smiling face glued to the head.

Kim had served two years as UH’s vice chancellor for academic affairs and was hoping to eventually become the president of a university, but that all changed in 2004 “after the Indian Ocean tsunami,” he recalls, “when in one day a quarter of a million people were killed across eleven countries. I saw this as a huge failure of urban planning. At that moment I realized there’s something bigger and better to work on. I wanted to go back to being an urban planner and focus on disaster risk reduction.” Thus the genesis of the NDPTC. Kim credits Hawai‘i’s late US Senator Daniel Inouye with bringing the federally supported center to UH in 2008; NDPTC is now funded to the tune of $5 million annually by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

To date NDPTC, working with 150 instructors—many of them former military and/or retired first responders—and thirty “subject matter experts” nationwide, has trained over fourteen thousand people in all fifty states and several territories. The curriculum includes courses like Coastal Flood Risk Reduction, Resilient Building Design for Coastal Communities, Tornado Awareness, Volcanic Crises Awareness and Social Media for Natural Disaster Response and Recovery, among others. A new course on the use of drones for disaster assessment is in development, and NDPTC is teaming up with the international crowd-sourcing organization Ushahidi to teach governments and first responders like police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and hospitals how to use social media in disaster situations. Now, Kim says, “we have the capacity to add regular citizens to the training as well as community groups, NGOs and private companies.” Recently Kim added a tribes and territories initiative, or TNT, to NDPTC’s programs. “Hawai‘i has a particular responsibility to bridge different cultural and ethnic groups,” he says, noting NDPTC’s work in American Samoa with regard to tsunami preparedness and how self-governing American Indian reservations must be engaged in disaster planning.

One of Kim’s initiatives has been to broaden the definition of who qualifies as a first responder. “Remember what happened after Katrina—the people who operate the pumps that prevent flooding, they weren’t treated as first responders, so they were sent home, right?” He laughs in disgust. “So utilities, public works, transportation agencies, hotels, big institutions where people can shelter, universities, places that have industrial kitchens located in safe areas—these are all part of disaster response preparedness.” I ask Kim what’s the preferred term for this whole new ethos of disaster planning. Is it “disaster preparedness,” per the DP in NDPTC?

“No,” he says, “it’s ‘disaster risk reduction,’” or DRR. He points to a quote from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: “The need to engage fully in disaster risk reduction activities has never been more pressing,” it reads. “Disaster risk reduction is about stronger building codes, sound land-use planning, better early warning systems, environmental management, evacuation plans and, above all, education.”

Whatever one calls it, responding to disasters seems to be a live current for our traumatic times. I ask Kim whether with 9/11, the hurricanes, tsunamis, droughts, sea-level rise, etc., there’s been a paradigm shift. “Absolutely,” he replies. “These are wake-up calls. I think the first was 9/11. We were living in this secure, safe, business-as-usual world, and 9/11 changed it all. And then, just when we thought we were getting over that, what happens? Katrina, then Sandy. And we really didn’t pay attention to the Indian Ocean tsunami. It was ‘over there,’ even though hundreds of thousands lost their lives. But the flooded New York subway? The losses from Sandy are estimated at around $70 billion! That’s huge.

“Business as usual won’t work anymore,” Kim says emphatically. “We’ve needed some shocks to really wake people up. That’s why I like to say disasters are teachable moments. When a disaster occurs, it’s a huge leveler: Everyone loses power, access to water, etc. Big storms take out miles and miles of infrastructure. Disasters magnify what works and what doesn’t work, who has power and who doesn’t. We need to learn from them and prepare for them. We’ve got to learn from every shock.” Kim invokes Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the central Philippines in 2013. The storm surge killed an estimated seven thousand people, he says. A year later Typhoon Hagupit hit the same area. Over a million people were evacuated, and fewer than twenty died.

Disaster preparation involves building what Kim calls resilience, “the ability to absorb a shock and recover quickly, to get your systems back and up and running. You can build resilience into things,” he says, mentioning NDPTC’s Hurriplan—Resilient Building Design for Coastal Communities course, developed in the wake of Katrina. The two-day course, which notably has been incorporated into the American Institute of Architects’ continuing education program, advocates “best practices” instead of simply meeting minimum building code requirements. It urges government agencies and utilities towork together to “harden” power generation and distribution infrastructure, outlines advance planning and analysis for mass-shelter facilities and recommends exceeding FEMA-designated base flood elevations. “FEMA maps rely on the historical record and don’t factor in sea-level rise,” explains course developer and Honolulu-based architect Dean Sakamoto.

How resilient is Hawai‘i right now? I ask Kim.

“Not very,” he answers. Our biggest threats, he says, are tsunamis and hurricanes, neither of which has dramatically impacted the Islands for decades—the last major disaster here was ‘Iniki, a Category 4 hurricane that devastated Kaua‘i in 1992. On the upside, Kim acknowledges a few locally based efforts to build resilience into communities, in places like Hau‘ula in windward O‘ahu, Mānoa valley in Honolulu and in Waikīkī, where, Kim says, travel industry groups are “coming around” to the idea of proactively reducing risks.