Vern Miyagi: Emergency Management chief prepares for threats both natural and from North Korea

Posted on Oct 24, 2017 in Information and News Releases

story courtesy of Staradvertiser


Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency headquarters are buried in the volcanic crater floor near Diamond Head’s popular hiking trail. The housing in Battery Birkhimer — constructed a century ago for coastal artillery — is fitting, given the agency’s aim to anticipate threats, hazards and disasters in the islands.

In addition to the annual hurricane season, which starts in early June and wraps up in late November, Emergency Management — in tandem with county, state and federal agencies — has contended with several “off season” challenges in recent years, said Vern Miyagi, who will mark his second anniversary as the agency’s administrator next week.

“After Tropical Storm Iselle (2014), we had the Puna lava event. Then we had the dengue fever outbreak followed by the Iao Valley flood, climate adaptation/sea level rise (king tides) and now the North Korean missile threat,” Miyagi said. “I don’t believe there is really an average workday here at HI-EMA.”

The McKinley High School grad holds an MBA from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and worked for several years as a CPA before moving from accounting to the military — the Hawaii Army National Guard. “I moved to the operations branch just before Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai in 1992, and deployed as part of the joint task force. This was the start of the emergency management career.” He quipped, “My career has always been: ‘What have I gotten myself into now?’”

Since Miyagi has been heading EMA’s day-to-day workings, two Hawaii island-focused events — Iselle, which toppled hundreds of albizia trees and caused millions of dollars of damage in Puna; and the Kilauea lava flow, which threatened Pahoa three years ago — prompted the White House to issue disaster declarations providing federal aid.

In the aftermath of such pressure-packed events, Miyagi unwinds by spending time with family, including dates with his wife, Gail. The couple met four decades ago, when she was a sponsor (sorority) for Miyagi’s UH ROTC class. They have two children and three grandkids.

Question: Recently, Emergency Management rolled out the start of a preparedness plan in the unlikely event that North Korea launches an intercontinental ballistic missile at Hawaii. What has the community response consisted of?

Answer: The response has been predominantly positive. … We have a responsibility at HI-EMA to work closely with the counties and support their efforts to prepare the public (residents and visitors) for “all hazards.”

Although the probability of a nuclear missile attack on Hawaii is still assessed as unlikely … we could not wait to begin a public information campaign to ensure Hawaii residents and visitors know what to expect and what to do if such an event occurs. The ongoing missile tests and increasing nuclear/missile capabilities of North Korea cannot be ignored.

That said, this threat will not result in doomsday or Armageddon for the state. Despite recent tests over the weekend, the current North Korean nuclear warhead capability is not at the multi-megaton levels that near peer adversaries had during the Cold War.

… We need updated plans for the response and recovery phases of this and any disaster ahead of time. We cannot try to catch up after an event occurs or is imminent.

Q: Testing of a siren signal tied to the North Korean threat is slated to start in November. How will that work?

A: Right now, we have one basic siren sound — called the “alert warning” siren signal. This is a steady tone and instructs the public to turn on their television, radios and other communication devices to find out what is threatening the state (tsunami, hurricane, etc.). This steady tone is currently tested statewide on the first business day of each month.

As the result of the nuclear missile attack threat, an additional siren signal – called the “attack warning” tone will be reactivated. This is a wavering tone and will instruct the public to immediately take shelter. HI-EMA and the counties are planning to test this new sound statewide as part of the regular monthly siren tests.

Q: What should we do if that siren sounds at any time other than a scheduled testing session?

A: If the public hears the new “attack warning” wavering tone during a non-scheduled test, and after it is officially implemented, they should immediately take cover in the most substantial building or structure available. We use the term “shelter in place,” however, each person should pre-identify that place ahead of time and for various times of the normal workday. The primary instructions are summarized as: “Get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned.”

As in preparation for other hazards, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, each family should have a plan of where each member will go, what they will do, and when they will do it.

The warning time available for Hawaii is only 15 minutes or less. This accounts for a missile transit time (launch to impact) of only 20 minutes, reduced for the time that our military experts need to determine if Hawaii is the likely target. There will be no time to call our loved ones, pick up our kids, and find a designated shelter. We should all prepare and exercise a plan ahead of time so we can take some comfort in knowing what our loved ones are doing.

Q: The agency’s annual Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment examines potential hazards and threats including natural (hurricane, tsunami, etc.), technological (cyberterrorism) and man-made (terrorism) hazards. Aside from North Korea’s missile testing, what most concerns you now?

A: Hawaii and other jurisdictions have lost more people from earthquakes and tsunamis than any other disaster. Mitigation and research efforts by the UH after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan disclosed the potential for a similar large earthquake in the Aleutian Islands that would generate a major tsunami toward Hawaii. Arrival time would be only 4.5 hours after the quake.

Although Hawaii is still susceptible to other major threats and hazards, this potential Great Alaskan Earthquake is the one that concerns me since the preparation time is so short. A warning by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center would necessitate major evacuation from coastal areas in a very short time.

Q: Overall, how prepared is Hawaii for an emergency, on a scale of 1-10? Are some counties more prepared than others?

A: Our preparedness hinges on public resiliency. These are residents and visitors that know what to expect and what to do, for all disasters/emergencies, ahead of time. I believe that the emergency management and first responder communities at both the state and county levels know what to expect and know what to do based on actual experience in recent events.

Some of the counties have had more than their share of disaster events. However, I cannot accurately assess the public’s resiliency — but I know it is not 100 percent. I don’t believe everyone has a 14-day emergency kit, an emergency plan, or knows what to expect and do for all disasters. We will continue our outreach and community messages to the public in this regard.

Q: How do you stay calm when an emergency situation surfaces?

A: I have a super team here at HI-EMA and our relationships with the county emergency management/civil defense agencies, state departments, federal agencies (such as FEMA, National Weather Service, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and active military) are excellent.

These relationships are personal and the trust and credibility of all stakeholders have been built and sustained through numerous exercises, joint training and actual responses. With such a team I am very confident that emergency situations will be handled efficiently. Being old also contributes to calmness.

Q: What do you find most satisfying about work as the agency’s administrator?

A:Working with emergency management folks, first responders, EM stakeholders, military folks and the people of Hawaii. Our mission is to protect our folks and save lives. I can’t think of a better mission. Everyone really cares.

… During Hurricane Iniki, Tropical Storm Iselle … and other disaster events, I witnessed so many acts of aloha where our people spontaneously helped and took care of their neighbors, friends, visitors, strangers and even our Hawaii National Guard soldiers/airmen, who were sent to help them.