String of Hawaii disasters gave FEMA head start on Hurricane Lane

(Reuters) - Federal emergency managers got an unusual head start preparing for Hurricane Lane, with key personnel and supplies deployed well ahead of the storm in response to a flurry of disaster threats to Hawaii in recent months, officials said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO - A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employee waits for the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump during a visit at FEMA headquarters in Washington, U.S., August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had already established an operational presence on Oahu and Kauai after widespread flooding across those islands in April, and on Hawaii’s Big Island during the eruption of Kilauea Volcano that began in May.

FEMA started moving additional supplies to Hawaii again in advance of Hurricane Hector, which skirted past the Pacific U.S. archipelago state more than a week ago, agency spokeswoman Veronica Verde told Reuters by phone from Honolulu.

“We have already shipped meals-ready-to-eat, and also water and generators to all four (Hawaii) counties and prepositioned them for Hector” in distribution centers, with more provisions set to arrive ahead of Lane, she said.

FEMA is also following a revised play book in the aftermath of catastrophic damage and loss of life wreaked by Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to FEMA chief Brock Long.

The strategy calls for getting generators in place before the storm hits so they can immediately restore electricity for basic needs, including power to restart local water systems, Long told reporters at a briefing in Washington.

“It’s not just providing food and water. If you fix the power first, you solve 90 percent of the problems,” Long said.

Verde said FEMA has also “pushed more of our commodities forward in preparation for this hurricane” than it has in the past.

FEMA was harshly criticized in the wake of Maria as having been too slow to recognize the gravity of the devastation to Puerto Rico and too sluggish in providing disaster relief to the Caribbean island.

For Lane, which had threatened for days to become the first major hurricane to plow directly through the Hawaiian islands since 1992, FEMA “embedded” its own liaison officers in the emergency operations centers of state and local authorities for close coordination.

FEMA has also sent in urban search-and-rescue teams, along with two disaster medical teams, personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other specialists for transportation, communications and hazardous waste management, she said.

In one other change since the Hurricane Maria calamity in Puerto Rico, Verde said FEMA has worked more closely with private-sector suppliers - such as big-box retail outlets - to arrange for emergency distribution of food, communications equipment and other provisions that might be needed.

Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Tait