Civil Defense on the hot seat

  • This aerial photo shows fissure 8 spewing lava in Leilani Estates during 2018's lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kilauea volcano. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)
  • Firefighters battle a blaze on Highway 190, south of the Old Saddle Road junction, that burned more than 18,000 acres in August. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Flames can be seen from the Waikoloa Post Office in August amid a brush fire that ultimately charred 18,000 acres. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno found himself in the hot seat Thursday, as County Council members grilled him about communication lapses during two recent disasters.

Magno was one of numerous county officials coming under intense scrutiny during three days of hearings as the council’s Finance Committee went through each department’s proposed budget and performance plan.

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No agency has been spared during the hearings, and council members made it clear that the Fire and Police departments also share responsibility for better communication during emergencies.

Council members were particularly concerned that the Civil Defense Agency’s public information/recovery specialist position is vacant, and their concern increased when they learned the position is being changed to simply a recovery specialist.

“Every time we have an event, my phone explodes,” said Kohala Councilman Tim Richards. “We need to have a better form of communication.”

Magno said the agency’s public information officer left the position shortly after the May 3 eruption of Kilauea Volcano, and rather than refilling the position in the middle of a disaster, Civil Defense relied on public information officers from other departments statewide as well as the mayor’s office.

The eruption and lava flows lasted more than three months, destroying more than 700 homes and cutting off roads to lower Puna.

“Public information/recovery specialist — those are two jobs,” Magno said. “We chose recovery specialist because that would be more beneficial to the county … and the public information/recovery position will be rewritten as a recovery specialist with the idea that the public information officer out of the mayor’s office will support us.”

That wasn’t sufficient for council members.

“I have some general concerns about that,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy. “We rely on information coming out. … To pluck someone out of the mayor’s office during this time … they’re running their own lives, whereas you guys have a network and a team, and I’d rather see it there.”

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz said misinformation spreading on social media is a real concern.

“When there are information gaps … that’s when the rumor mill starts,” Kierkiewicz said. “What is the plan to get the information out?”

Magno said his office is looking at contracting out some of the social media work during disasters to help get the word out.

But Richards wants a “communication center” at Civil Defense.

“Do you need us to mandate this so we can get this message system and communications center open? Because the current system is not working,” Richards said.

“It doesn’t have to be mandated because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” Magno responded. “If it’s not adequate, then we need to ramp it up.”

Richards pointed to an Aug. 1 brush fire in Waikoloa that burned for a week, consuming 18,000 acres and frightening residents.

“We need to do this better,” Richards said about communication during the fire. “Half the people thought they had to evacuate and half didn’t know if they had to.”

Not only aren’t members of the public not getting enough information, council members aren’t either, said South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David.

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“In the prior eruption, I remember that council members were notified to attend weekly briefings,” David said. “Council members are the first line of information. … Constituents will call us first hand to get information or to get reassurance.”

(Disclosure: Nancy Cook Lauer is on the board of Big Island Press Club, which earlier this year named the Civil Defense Agency the recipient of its annual dishonorable Lava Tube award for its handling of communications with the public and the media during the volcanic eruption. Lauer did not attend the meeting when the vote was held, nor participate in the discussion.)

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