State disaster fund depleted

The state of Hawaii depleted its Major Disaster Fund in response to Tropical Storm Iselle, according to a Thursday letter sent by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to President Barack Obama seeking federal assistance.

The state of Hawaii depleted its Major Disaster Fund in response to Tropical Storm Iselle, according to a Thursday letter sent by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to President Barack Obama seeking federal assistance.


“The state has expended approximately $1.3 million in response costs and has a reported $13.2 million in damage and debris expenses,” reads the letter, which was supplied to the Tribune-Herald in response to a records request.

“This exhausts the state’s Major Disaster Fund, and the Governor will move general fund dollars from other areas of the state budget to replenish the fund.”

In addition, the governor reported that Hawaii County has no “rainy day” or disaster fund and “will be forced to borrow to meet operational expenses and any response requirements if another disaster threatens.” However, in a phone interview Sunday afternoon, Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi said he didn’t know where that information came from.

“We do have a disaster relief fund. We had $5 million in it, and we’ve spent $1.6 million so far in disaster relief,” he said. “We’ve planned for emergencies, and we’ve put aside resources for it, and we’re just thankful we had the resources this time. … We’re going to have to continue to put aside resources for that fund.”

The 10-page letter provides a detailed account of state and county response measures leading up to and following the arrival of Iselle, which made landfall on Hawaii Island about 2:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 8.

In a preliminary assessment of the damages incurred by homeowners on the island, FEMA assessors verified 11 homes that were destroyed and an additional 50 that suffered some degree of damage, according to a damage report attached with the letter. A team of assessors with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as the state and county, completed the damage survey last week.

“The strong winds, heavy rain, flooding, high surf, storm surge and lightning caused by Tropical Storm Iselle caused damage across all four counties of the State of Hawaii,” the governor’s letter states. “Storm surge and wind-driven waves flooded homes and moved them off their foundations in Kapoho, Hawaii County. High winds downed hundreds of albezia (sic) trees, destroying and damaging hundreds of homes and causing extensive damage to the electrical infrastructure. At peak loss, over 33,000 customers were without power in Hawaii County …”

On Sunday, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige explained that the FEMA Preliminary Damage Assessment numbers represented assessments of all homes that previously were identified by the state and county as having been destroyed or exhibiting “major damage.”

“Assistance is based on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “If we do get the Individual Assistance Program request granted, (additional homeowners) would have the opportunity to register (over the phone) or online.”

Last week, the state revealed that more than 250 homeowners reported impacts from the storm to their homes and property.

Among the data included with the letter, a cost estimate puts the total federal share of homeowner assistance and “Other Needs” assistance at more than $1 million. Those costs include providing temporary housing for affected families, as well as home repair assistance, home replacement assistance and assistance for some household items destroyed by the storm.

In addition to individual homeowner assistance, the state is expected to request assistance for recovery efforts on public infrastructure, such as bridges and roads. FEMA is expected to perform another joint assessment of those impacts this week.

Also in his letter to the president, Abercrombie related the need for assistance for volunteer organizations in Hawaii, whose resources have been stretched thin by recovery efforts.

“With its small population and large land mass, Hawaii County does not have strong volunteer programs, and the ability of the on-island VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) members to support disaster operations is limited,” he wrote. “Virtually all of the volunteer support for the on-island VOAD organziations was provided from other islands within the state … or from the mainland.”

He added that most of the 11 voluntary organizations in East Hawaii are staffed by between one and three people.

“With this small staff, the capacity to receive new cases at a heightened pace and sustained duration was exhausted. For example, Catholic Charities at the DARC (Disaster Assistance Recovery Center) opened 64 new cases, but are unable to take any more. A number of the local agencies could not do outreach (at) the DARCs because of limited staffing.

“Clients in the heavily affected Puna district are situated throughout about 500 square miles. Driving to households to follow up with recovery services would dramatically increase fuel costs alone, which would be unsustainable for VOAD organizations.”

In summation, Abercrombie said the Puna district’s high rate of poverty and relative lack of support services necessitates outside support.

“Tropical Storm Iselle has devastated this impoverished community and its residents do not have the financial capability to recover. We request approval of this request,” the letter states.


State officials have said they can give no estimate of when the president might approve or deny the request for federal assistance.

Email Colin M. Stewart at