Measure proposes retrofit of some schools to serve as hurricane shelters

A bill that would require the state to retrofit certain schools to serve as hurricane shelters passed its second reading in the state House.

House Bill 457 intends to establish a pilot program to retrofit one Department of Education building in each county to be able to withstand a Category 3 hurricane and serve as disaster shelters.

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The bill, which passed its second reading last Wednesday, is functionally identical to a bill that was introduced during last year’s legislative session. That bill was shelved despite universal support from testifying state agencies.

The current text of HB 457 does not identify which schools would be targeted for the retrofits, nor does it identify where funding for the program would be generated.

State Rep. Chris Todd, D-Hilo, who co-sponsored last year’s bill, said last year that such determinations would only be made after the bill was passed.

However, the bill does specify that the DOE, in collaboration with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, will ultimately decide which buildings to retrofit, in accordance with the state’s hurricane shelter criteria.

The bill coincides with another bill introduced this session that would establish a similar pilot program, this one to install renewable energy systems capable of providing backup power in case of emergency in four DOE buildings.

That bill, House Bill 1538, cites the devastating impact of 2017’s Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, where the American territory’s power grid was disrupted for nearly a year.

“If a disaster of similar magnitude impacted Hawaii, having some shelters equipped to continue to provide backup power independent of the electric grid while recovery efforts are underway will greatly increase disaster preparedness,” the bill reads.

However, HB 1538 does not specify in which counties the four DOE buildings must be — merely that the department choose schools that are likely to be designated emergency shelters in the event of a natural disaster.

While the DOE is in support of HB 457 — as long as it does not interfere with the department’s budget — Superintendent Christina Kishimoto opposed HB 1538 because a similar pilot project at a single DOE building in Honolulu already is underway.

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A public hearing for HB 1538 will take place Wednesday.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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