Saturday, May 19, 2018

Commentary: The public has a right to tsunami inundation maps

wikipedia commons
1946 Hilo Bay tsunami PC: Wikipedia Commons
Tsunami maps drawn by scientists or tsunami maps drawn by the government?

I chose the former. And you should, too.

I am almost at the end of a more than four-year wait for copies of Hawaii Island's tsunami inundation maps, after the state Office of Information practices on May 10 overturned the then state Department of Defense's denial of the records. The opinion, No. 18-02, has not yet been posted online.

UPDATED June 10, 2018: Opinion No. 18-02 can be found here.

Almost at the end of the wait, that is, unless the state Emergency Management Agency decides to request reconsideration or appeal. The agency has until May 24 to ask OIP for reconsideration; it has until June 9 to appeal to circuit court.

The state argued an exemption under the state Uniform Information Practices Act that the records must be confidential in order to avoid the frustration of a legitimate government function. Releasing the maps, state officials said, would only "confuse" people. I argued there is no confusion exemption in the UIPA, and the public has the right to see maps purchased with their tax dollars.

The county uses the scientists' inundation maps to create evacuation maps, which are made public.

"The requested documents are used for the development of emergency management and/or emergency response plans, which include instructions to help ensure the safety of the public. The disclosure of the tsunami inundation maps, which are not disclosed to the public, but are used to help establish tsunami evacuation zones, would endanger the life and/or physical safety of members of the public who may be confused by the difference between the inundation limits and the tsunami evacuation Lines developed by the county," the state argued.

OIP said that's not enough reason to withhold the maps. All of the other states bordering the Pacific Ocean publish the maps online, OIP said in its opinion.

Here's how California does it. The state even allows the public to download the spatial data, so they can make their own maps.

"OIP understands the tsunami inundation maps to be essentially factual, representing the current scientific understanding of how a tsunami would affect the area mapped, whereas the tsunami evacuation zone maps represent a governmental policy decision as to what portions of the area mapped should be evacuated in the face of a tsunami warning," OIP said in its opinion.

"CDD's argument that, in essence, the public cannot safely possess such factual information about the likely horizontal measurement of the path of a tsunami, contradicts the purposes of the UIPA," the opinion added.

I wanted the maps in order to compare what scientists thought were critical inundation areas to what the government ultimately created as evacuation zones.

I'm not saying our own government would do this, but I can imagine a scenario where an important official or major campaign donor could be left out of a zone. A slight wiggle of the map lines here or there could translate into millions more dollars in property resale value or thousands less in property insurance.

The most common conflicts of interest in local government happen when officeholders face a vote on real property/land use issues that affect their own holdings, according to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Bottom line, the public has the right to compare the two maps. With the current volcano and earthquake emergency on the Big Island, it's more important now than ever that we know where inundation zones are.

Major mahalos to the nonprofit Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest and its director, Brian Black, for helping me with this appeal. The Law Center, incidentally, is the 2018 winner of the Big Island Press Club's Torch of Light award, given to an individual or entity who brightens the public’s right to know.

Government records belong to the public, not the government. We have a right to know.