A thousand years ago, voyaging canoes arrived on our island and fostered a culture where no person or group should gain too much at the expense of our people.
Since then, each wave of immigrants has brought their own cultural gifts to add. On a small island our shared value of community—where each individual gives a little so that the group ultimately benefits together—has always defined who we are. This core value provides a strong foundation for O‘ahu to survive, adapt, and thrive in a challenging future—but only if we empower our values with action.
Recently, the gap between rich and poor has grown, the scale of tourism has reached into neighborhoods and secluded areas, and natural disasters have pushed communities to the brink. 45 percent of O‘ahu residents live in a household where someone is contemplating leaving, and 78 percent of residents believe that climate change is going to impact them personally. Our modern voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a left O‘ahu to circle the globe with a call to restore our central value of mālama ‘āina: stating unequivocally that our ability to continue to thrive on island Earth together is rooted in local communities turning towards a truly sustainable future.
With this O‘ahu Resilience Strategy, the City and County of Honolulu picks up the torch from the Mālama Honua sail. The 44 actions within it directly address the challenge of long-term affordability and the impacts of a climate crisis that is already driving islanders from their homes. Implementing this Strategy will make us economically more self-sufficient and safer as island people.
This Strategy was not the work product of one; it is a gut-check from thousands of residents who want to see action to protect the island they love. With leadership and upfront investment, a higher quality of life will result for all O‘ahu residents. A healthy community pulls together in times of challenge, and we look forward to working alongside individuals, non-profits, businesses, and neighborhood organizations to steer O‘ahu’s course back to a thriving and equitable future.
Ensuring an affordable future for our island
Building resilience on O‘ahu is directly related to maintaining continuity of our community. For the first time since statehood, both the entire state and O‘ahu’s populations declined for two consecutive years. This outmigration of local families and Honolulu’s struggle with homelessness are directly tied to affordability and opportunity. The cost of living in Honolulu is 24.4 percent above the national average, and while Honolulu’s unemployment rate is a low 2.3 percent, a 2017 study by the United Way found that 46 percent of employed households are asset limited and income constrained—meaning they may hold multiple jobs to make ends meet, but still live paycheck to paycheck.
The bottom line is that O‘ahu’s families are stretched thin. It also means our families are highly vulnerable to shocks in the economy or natural environment, with little or no safety net to help them through emergencies. O‘ahu residents identified cost of living as the number one vulnerability and “stress” undermining long-term resilience in our community.
Along with housing, O‘ahu residents also spend more for transportation and utilities than the national average. Affordability needs to be complemented by economic opportunity for residents. With high energy costs, O‘ahu has a unique opportunity to open up an innovation economy that drives down energy costs and incubates solutions that create employment and exports technology to the rest of the globe. Leveraging established partners in the field, the City can foster an alternative to the two dominant economic engines of tourism and military spending that are highly sensitive and dependent on external factors.
To uphold O‘ahu’s renowned high quality of life, and offset its high cost of living, the City will invest in long-term solutions that increase self-sufficiency, reduce out-of-pocket expenses, and assure our community stay intact.
Fostering resilience in the face of natural disasters
O‘ahu faces incredibly unique challenges when it comes to natural disasters. Take into consideration that we are one of the most isolated places on Earth. In the event of a natural disaster, disruptions to air or shipping lines could lead to significant delays in emergency response and the delivery of considerable food imports, medicine, and other critical supplies. Honolulu’s island infrastructure is also extremely vulnerable, with many roadways, bridges, and facilities located in coastal and flood-prone areas. What’s more, many of O‘ahu’s communities are linked by a single roadway—and a flood or storm could sever roadways and completely cut off communities.
On top of these geographic and physical vulnerabilities, climate change is a threat multiplier. In recent decades, coastal communities like O‘ahu have accounted for the majority of U.S. annual disaster losses. 60 percent of O‘ahu’s critical infrastructure and two-thirds of our population are located within a mile of the coast. In Hawai‘i, climate change has already caused more frequent and powerful hurricanes and tropical storms, intense rainfall, and flood events, a trend which will continue and worsen in the future.
The actions in this pillar help O‘ahu communities prepare and become more resilient to natural disasters and external shocks by learning from past disasters, improving local infrastructure, and planning for recovery. We want to bounce back quickly, but we can also “bounce forward” in the wake of a disaster by building back smarter, stronger, and in more resilient locations so that we are better prepared for the next event.
Tackling climate change by reducing emissions and adapting to impacts
As an isolated island with a heavy reliance on imported fossil fuel, O‘ahu is on the climate change front line. Impacts from sea level rise, increased rainfall flooding, and extreme heat are happening in real time all around us. Recent king tide inundation, severe beach erosion along the North Shore and Ko‘olau Loa, and the April 2018 “rain bomb” flooding demonstrate the need to act. Bond rating agencies are now looking at how well municipalities understand their climate risk and are preparing for the future. The benefit is clear: the sooner we transition to a clean energy economy and design resilient infrastructure to lower our risk to life and property, the greater the cost savings to current and future generations. Climate change is the challenge of our time, but it also provides the opportunity to design for multiple benefits and improve our community conditions and quality of life while protecting the places that we love.
The City has pledged to uphold the Paris climate agreement and drastically reduce our emissions in an effort to slow negative climate impacts and reduce the billions of dollars we export out of our local economy every year to pay for fossil fuels. The Administration and City Council have so far established clear goals and commitments transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy, and action is already underway: we are changing our streetlights island-wide to high-efficiency LEDs, capturing our biogas from wastewater treatment, and building an all-electric rail system.
Honolulu is in position to be the most active, forward-thinking city in the nation on climate change. This pillar presents a two-pronged approach that tackles our climate change pollution and emissions while simultaneously increasing climate resilience for local communities. Both approaches will be formalized through a more detailed Climate Action Plan and a Climate Adaptation Strategy, respectively—yet we know there are early actions we can take now to ensure continued progress. A new carbon-free economy is coming, and this Strategy begins to lay the groundwork for a fossil-fuel free future.
Leveraging the strength and leadership of local communities
Community is the essential element of resilience. We know this because in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Sandy and the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami, the neighborhoods that “bounced back” the quickest had the most social connections. We know this because climate change solutions like solar panels and electric cars often spread to neighbors of early adopters. And we know this because it was community that came together and gave selflessly to create homes for 30 formerly homeless families at Kahauiki Village. Every pillar of this Resilience Strategy is held up by a tight-knit community.
This echoes what the Resilience Office heard as we traveled the island from neighborhood to neighborhood, listening to residents identify O‘ahu’s major resilience strengths and challenges. There was resounding agreement that social cohesiveness is the greatest strength of our O‘ahu community and a deep source of pride for our island residents. To build resilience we need not all be emergency workers or clean energy innovators, we can simply get to know our neighbors on all four sides, volunteer regularly for a community non-profit, and throw a shaka when a stranger lets you merge in. That’s building resilience at the grassroots level.
Community connections with our family, neighbors, and friends are the invisible threads that weave the social fabric of O‘ahu together. The City must foster connectivity and collaboration to ensure that we come together stronger and tighter when we are presented with economic and environmental challenges. The City must be as open, transparent, and aligned as possible with other island-wide institutions, non-profit organizations, and individual groups of passionate community volunteers. Our big challenges can be met only if we all take the time to listen, weigh our collective strengths, and paddle in the same direction together.