Talk Story: A Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency Blog

Itʻs mid-morning on a Sunday. I am driving with Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency Administrator Luke Meyers and Hawaiʻi County Civil Defense Staff Officer Joshua Black to the base of Maunakea on Hawaiʻi Island to view the impacts from a recent wildfire that burned over 40,000 acres and destroyed two homes on Hawaiian Home Lands.

L-R: Hawaiʻi County Civil Defense Officer Joshua Black and Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency Administrator Luke Meyers survey the damage from the Mana Road Fire in Hawaiʻi County, Hawaiʻi, Aug. 8, 2021 | Photo by Hollie Stark

The lush greenery below has given way to a much drier and starker landscape as we traverse up the dirt roads toward the burn scar. At the top of the charred area, several hot spots continue to seethe smoke into the sky, and a lone helicopter circles over, its bucket brimming as the pilot readies to mop up what is left of what was called the Mana Road Fire. 

This is emergency management. Well at least one facet of it. 

Both Meyers and Black are passionate emergency management leaders, and they ride in the front of the sturdy white Civil Defense truck spitballing ideas – everything from implementing more ArcGIS tools to neighborhood messaging platforms and how to best utilize grant monies to help state and county efforts both in response to current emergencies and in the event of future incidents. 

Outside of emergency management circles, the acronyms – PA grants (Personal Assistance), RFI (Request for Information), CEMP (Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan), and EOP (Emergency Operating Procedure), to name a few – can seem like alphabet soup and yet these two dedicated professionals banter back-and-forth as if speaking another language. 

And in truth, they are.  

That they speak it so fluently and with a fair amount of idealism given how tired they are is a testament to their dedication for the jobs they do and the people they ultimately serve.  

My kuleana, or responsibility on this trip, is purely observatory; getting an on-the-ground view of the fireʻs impacts creates a better context of the scope and scale of the types of emergencies we respond to and how we at state emergency management can create stronger partnerships with the counties, state leadership, and federal agencies. 

But it isnʻt always easy.  

Damage from the Mana Road Fire in Hawaiʻi County, Hawaiʻi, Aug. 8, 2021 | Photo by Hollie Stark

The white truck is now covered in dust, a mixture of dry silty roads and ash, as we pull up to our first stop and step out into the rubble of what was only a week ago, someoneʻs home.  

State emergency managementʻs role, while critical, isnʻt always what people assume. We arenʻt generally the boots-on-the-ground first responders like firefighters or public safety officials, but we do help them. 

In Hawaii, state statute chapter 127A delineates that all emergency response begins and ends at the county and local levels. At the state level we act as a liaison, a conduit of sorts, to additional technical resources, information, and oftentimes, assistance in the form of grants. 

For the Mana Road Fire, we were able to help secure a Fire Management Assistance Grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency which provides funding for up to 75% of eligible firefighting costs. Monies can be spent for field camps, equipment use, materials, supplies and mobilization, and demobilization activities.  

We were also able to help advise Gov. Ige to declare a state of emergency in order to access Major Disaster Funds available to provide quick and efficient relief of suffering, damage, and losses caused by the wildfire. 

A couple of big wins for a team that often works behind the scenes without a lot of fanfare for their efforts.  

We spend the rest of Sunday driving to fire affected areas, the two emergency management leaders never flagging in their quest to be quicker, more efficient, better trained, and more prepared for incidents that might impact the state. 

This is emergency management.