Hurricane Preparedness Week: Spotlight on Hawaii Sea Grant Extension Agent Dennis Hwang
Hawaii Sea Grant Coastal Hazard Mitigation Specialist
Dennis Hwang combines his science and law background to concentrate on implementing science into decisions of the community so that hurricane, tsunami, flood, erosion, wind and earthquake impacts are mitigated. He authored the Hawai'i Coastal Hazard Mitigation Guidebook, which is used in the land use process in Hawai'i. A similar version was produced for Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. He co-authored the Homeowners Handbook to Prepare for Natural Hazards, which is now in its second edition and being produced for several states. Mr. Hwang is also Counsel at the Office of O’Connor Playdon and Guben and his clients include government agencies and planning departments dealing with coastal, hazard, and land use issues.
Hwang is a member of the NOAA National Focus Team for Hazard Resilient Communities, Hawaii State Hurricane Advisory Committee, American Society of Civil Engineers, Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, Hawaii State Bar Association and is a Court Appointed Arbitrator. He believes in implementing science using a flexible approach based on a continuum of key elements. These concepts will soon be applied for portions of the Pacific Region to address hazard and sea-level rise issues.
It’s Hurricane Preparedness Week, what is one thing everyone needs to know about preparing for a hurricane?
There is a lot of uncertainty about preparing for a hurricane. Although there is a hurricane season or preparedness week, preparation should be year round. For example, your emergency supplies such as food should be monitored so items don’t expire in the middle of the year and get thrown out. For your house, home improvements are usually done year round, and when there is an improvement, there is often an opportunity to make the house stronger. Many measures homeowners can do to reduce hazard impacts cannot be done in a week, but are projects done over several weeks. Certainly something that cannot be done when there is a hurricane watch or warning. You can prepare and make a big difference, although there will always still be some uncertainty.
What is something cool you learned while working on coastal hazards outreach?
I never thought I would learn so much about home construction. It’s cool to go into the attic of the house and see how everything is put together, although in the attic it’s usually warm, except if it’s done right, it can be cool. We recently wrote appendices on asphalt shingle roofing, ridge vents and solar photovoltaic panels in a 2014 update to the Homeowners Handbook. We learned about how to make asphalt shingle roofs stronger, and reducing the risk that solar panels don’t fly off the roof in high wind events. There’s not a lot of material out there on this subject so we worked a lot with FEMA, consultants and the industry. We think it can have a significant impact because last year, there were 17,000 solar units installed in Hawaii. When they put in solar, it’s a chance to make the roof stronger. We hope people continue the trend to put in solar, and when they do, make their roofs and panels more secure. Thus there is a touch of resiliency, sustainability and adaptation all at once. That’s cool also.
What drove you to work on coastal hazards outreach?
Seeing the impacts of some areas hit by a hurricane such as Louisiana after Katrina, Texas after Ike or New York after Sandy and knowing the impact that can happen in my home state or to the people I care about. That drives me to try to help people to prepare, even if they don’t want to. In that case it has to be subtle. The Homeowners Handbook is really not written for just any homeowner, but for people that want to prepare. For people that don’t want to, we try our best to educate them in lay terms about hazard risk in order to build a sense of urgency to prepare.
Dennis Hwang, Hawaii Sea Grant Extension Agent, with members of American Red Cross and Honolulu Department of Emergency Management. Credit: Hawaii Sea Grant
How did you get involved with Sea Grant? When did you join Sea Grant?
It’s a long time ago, but my master’s thesis on historic shoreline changes on Oahu was published as a dual Coastal Zone Management and University of Hawaii Sea Grant report. Then there was a hiatus, but I started to really get involved with Sea Grant in 2003 in writing the Coastal Hazard Mitigation Guidebook. It came out just after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and just before Hurricane Katrina, so it drew a fair amount of interest.
What is your favorite part about being a Sea Grant Extension agent?
It’s definitely working with the different people. For the Homeowners Handbook, we do about 30 outreach talks, seminars, workshops, fairs or expos per year. Church groups, rotary clubs, civic groups, neighborhood boards, companies ask for assistance. Lately we have been going to major organizations. In 2012 there was a lot of outreach for our major utility which employs thousands. In 2013, it was for the City and County of Honolulu employees. This year we are targeting University employees and staff. The greatest satisfaction comes when people come up to us and say they got their emergency supplies, prepared their evacuation plan, installed their hurricane clips, or saved on their hurricane insurance based on Sea Grant outreach.
Besides the general public, it gives me great satisfaction to be able to work with other Sea Grant agents around the county. Since I have lived not only in Hawaii, but the East Coast and Gulf Coast, it makes me really want to help out those areas if we can.
What is the biggest challenge you face at your job?
Complacency and myths about hazards. The most common myth is universal, that a hazard can’t happen to me or at my location. On Oahu, people don’t think they can be hit by a hurricane because only Kauai was hit in the last 30 years or so (In 1982 and 1992). But it doesn’t deter our efforts in trying to help people to prepare. They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. But if we lead 100 horses to water and a fraction of them drink then the outcome will be better than if nothing was done. Over the last few years, the challenge has gotten easier as the frequent news about hazards has gotten people to think maybe it can happen. Fifteen years ago, it was very difficult to talk about some of these preparation and hazard risk issues.
When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?
By my sophomore year in college, I knew I wanted to study and learn more about earth science driven by my interest in the coastline. I started taking courses in this area and knew quickly that this was my calling. I have a background in law also, but that was pursued and used to advance solutions that are developed in the field of science.
What part of your job did you least expect to be doing?
I never expected to be doing so much outreach in the field of hazard mitigation and resiliency. My interest was originally in the environmental field dealing with coastal erosion. Then it became apparent that erosion is really a hazard and implementation solutions into society could be added by framing it as such. As I got more into hazard field, I became very concerned about the vulnerability of the people in Hawaii and one thing led to the next. Many of the reports we have written were driven by concern and a feeling of responsibility to address these vulnerabilities.
Do you have an outside hobby?
Running, swimming and photography.
What surprised you most about working at Sea Grant?
Really enjoy working with Sea Grant people and the network. Whether it’s Sea Grant in Hawaii, or elsewhere, people work as a team and it helps to get a great amount done. The mission is also so important, to take research in the Universities and bring it into the community. This gives our work a practical aspect and also allows us to interact with so many people.
Meet other people in the Sea Grant Network that help communities prepare for severe coastal storms like hurricanes:
National Severe Storm Laboratory Sea Grant Extension Agent: Kodi Monroe
New York Sea Grant Communication Specialist: Paul Focazio
Maine Sea Grant Extension Agent: Kristen Grant
MIT Sea Grant funded researchers: Robert Beardsley and Changsheng Chen
South Carolina Sea Grant funded Researcher: Scott Schiff
Texas Sea Grant Extension Agent: Heather Wade