KAILUA-KONA — When a tsunami is heading toward Hawaii Island shores, sirens blare a warning sound alerting residents and visitors to get to higher ground. But what if the siren never sounds?
Nearly 10% of Hawaii Island’s Outdoor Warning Sirens are inoperable, according to the Hawaii County Civil Defense.
Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno said that as of the Oct. 1 test, nine of the 92 sirens installed in communities around the island were not working.
One of the sirens that remained silent for the test is located in Napoopoo Village, where the 2011 tsunami devastated the area surrounding Kealakekua Bay, even ripping one home off its foundation and sending it out to sea.
“We need our sirens working,” said Napoopoo resident Karen Anderson.
At 11:45 a.m. on the first business day of the month sirens are tested. An official neighborhood contact is called by Hawaii County Civil Defense to confirm the siren was heard.
Anderson is the contact person in Napoopoo. She said the siren has not worked for the last four to five months.
“Our sirens should be a priority,” said Anderson. “We are the most vulnerable in an inundation zone.”
Magno said he was aware of the siren failures, however, he said that the state’s Emergency Management Agency is responsible for the maintenance, repair and replacement of sirens across the state.
County workers will perform small repairs such as replacing batteries, but the rest must come through the state agency either through contracted work or sending crews from Honolulu to fix problems, he said. He was told that contractors want too much money, so the state opts to fix them in-house.
But that is taking precious time.
Earthquakes around the Pacific are not seasonal and can happen at any time, leaving island residents at risk for tsunami inundation.
Hawaii County Civil Defense sends out alerts via cellphone when there may be imminent danger from a tsunami, but in Napoopoo, where there is a large visitor presence, cellphone service is spotty, sometimes nonexistent. In addition, the agency has recently changed the providers that sends the alerts and many residents have failed to sign up with the new company.
Napoopoo resident Willa Marten said she is disturbed by the lack of action by the state.
“Yes, I’m upset,” she said. “Our neighborhood was one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the entire state in 2011. I live in an inundation zone. The siren hasn’t worked for months on end. A functioning warning system is important on an island like ours in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I see this current failure as part of a bigger picture of our entire infrastructure being neglected.”
Magno said as of the Oct. 1 test the following sites were inoperable: Baker Avenue in Hilo, Carvalho Park, Hapuna Beach Park, Hawi, Naalehu, Punaluu and Hawaii Paradise Park 2, in addition to Napoopoo. The county is not sure if the Ainaloa siren is working because they could not receive confirmation.
Reached on Thursday, the State Emergency Management Agency was unable to provide comment as of press time Friday.
“To us it’s really important that they solve the problem. That’s what government is for — to protect the people,” said Anderson.
To sign up for alerts from Hawaii County Civil Defense, either download the Everbridge App for your smartphone or visit the Hawaii County Civil Defense web page and follow the links to register for alerts and notifications.