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As hurricane nears Hawaii, FEMA promises to do better

Hurricane Lane, which was briefly a Category 5 storm, was seen by satellites on Aug. 22. Credit: NOAA

As a Category 4 hurricane roars toward Hawaii, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it's learned the lessons of last year's devastation of Puerto Rico and is vowing a better response.

Calling 2017 "historic," Jeff Byard, FEMA's associate administrator for response and recovery, told reporters Thursday that Hurricane Maria left the agency better prepared for Hurricane Lane. The storm is about 300 miles south of Honolulu and is expected to be very close to or over portions of the islands as soon as Thursday, Aug. 23.

"We gained a lot of knowledge coming out of that," Byard said on a conference call about the agency's experience with Maria.

Maria, which made landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, killed an estimated 4,600 people. Electricity was finally restored to all residents this month. FEMA concluded in a recent report that it needed better planning for extended power and communications outages, as well as more supplies, staff and greater coordination with other government agencies.

"Without stabilization, we cannot focus on true restoration and recovery," Byard said. "We cannot truly do recovery until emergency power is stabilized."

Following the experience of Puerto Rico, Byard said, FEMA is preparing for Hurricane Lane by focusing on the stabilization of "community lifelines." That includes not just safety and security but also restoring communications, electricity and transportation, as well as dealing more quickly with hazardous waste, he said, calling that approach "a major shift in emergency management."

Byard said that FEMA has sent more than 150 staff to Hawaii as well as 65 electrical generators, with another 26 scheduled to arrive on Thursday. The agency has hundreds of thousands of meals and liters of water on the islands, and is doing more to coordinate with the private sector and other agencies, including the Department of Defense, which has a large presence in the state.

He warned the public to take the storm seriously. "The state's going to get heavily impacted," Byard said. "We do not want anybody taking this lightly."

Lane is expected to produce total rain accumulations of 10 to 20 inches (25.4 to 50.8 centimeters) over the Hawaiian islands, with localized amounts in excess of 30 inches, leading to a threat of flash flooding and landslides. Over a foot of rain has already fallen on parts of the Big Island.

This article was written by Christopher Flavelle, a reporter for The Washington Post.