As Orange County Emergency Management Coordinator, Kirby Saunders has been deployed to natural disasters around the nation, but nothing prepared him for what he witnessed when he was sent to Hawaii to assist with a historic volcano eruption.
The event is officially known as the 2018 Lower Puna Eruption and began May 3, the day before a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck Puna. Within three weeks, 24 fissures had erupted and were spewing lava, leading to the evacuation of more than 2,000 residents. In late May, another massive lava flow erupted. As of early September, more than 700 homes had been destroyed. Lava didn’t stop flowing until mid-August, but officials warn that it could begin again.
“The uniqueness of this disaster is there was no beginning or end,” he said. “This one is still going. Typically you see the disaster recovery center set up after the disaster, but they couldn’t wait.”
The emergency response was similar to other events like floods or hurricanes in terms of logistics, Saunders said, but the cultural sensitivities required reached a new level. Saunders said some local residents believed the island was being punished, and they wanted to perform special rituals in an attempt to stop the eruption.
“The cultural aspect of the response was different,” Saunders said. “We had to find ways to make it safe for locals to do a ceremony near the lava to try to stop it, things we don’t typically think about in North Carolina.”
Disasters of this magnitude overwhelm local and state emergency response capabilities. Through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), an agreement between all states to share resources, Hawaii requested assistance.
“In any major disaster, that’s where the resources come from,” said Saunders. “The state of Hawaii sent out requests from Hawaii County for resources. States respond back with an offer of what they can provide, who will be on it and what it will cost. Hawaii picks the ones they like best and the team deploys. The state EMAC coordinator from North Carolina puts the package together and makes the offer to Hawaii.”
Saunders was part of a team of emergency management officials from North Carolina that were sent to help Hawaii County Civil Defense manage the crisis. The team spent two weeks on the island in June. The island is more than 4,000 square miles and mostly a remote area.
“Hawaii is a really rural county,” Saunders said. “They liked North Carolina’s teams and our flexibility. They liked our ability to work with the locals. We were going in to assist a local community, and the best responders to send are local emergency managers.”
Saunders’ team was the third from North Carolina. Like Saunders, several of the Tar Heel responders are from rural or mostly rural counties, and their background came in handy during their deployment. Saunders also worked with emergency managers from New Jersey, Virginia, Alaska and Missouri.
Each team had a specified role. Saunders’ team was part of an Incident Management Team (IMT) mission, a role similar to what he had performed when he was assigned to work Hurricane Matthew recovery in Robeson County. He is one of about 100 emergency managers in North Carolina who are credentialed to work on an IMT.
Saunders served as the Documentation Unit leader. He was responsible for compiling the documents of the IMT and all the activities conducted by Hawaii County. He compiled the county’s resource requests and managed the documentation for personnel who were being employed down range.
“Anybody who went into the exclusion zone had to wear an air monitor and had to have a gas mask,” Saunders said. “The big threat there was sulphur dioxide gas, which can be lethal in certain concentrations. It was a big safety issue, not to mention the lava.”
Saunders attended a briefing every morning and helped create a new Incident Action Plan (IAP) every 48 hours. The mission team featured representatives from 48 different agencies working at different locations throughout the island.
“We had 1,800 people on the mission during an operational period,” he said. “How do you distribute 1,800 copies of an IAP? And then what do you do if it changes? We put a QR code on the IAP and put posters up at all the incident facilities. You could point your phone at it and it would bring up the latest version.”
As with any deployment, Saunders learned valuable lessons he can put to use the next time an emergency strikes Orange County.
“The big takeaway for me is the importance of the county departments having a good awareness of the incident command system,” he said. “Their Elections Department had probably never written an IAP, and now they are coming up on an election this fall. There is a specific form they had to use that they had never seen, so we had to do a lot of education.”