The State of Aloha

Ferguson, Mo., is a small city in the northern suburbs of St. Louis with a population of around 21,000 people – that’s less than Wailuku. This month, the Midwestern city went from a quiet suburb to a war zone.

By now, most folks know about the killing of Michael Brown. Brown was 18 years old, black and unarmed when he was shot several times by a white police officer in broad daylight. People in the community gathered in outrage at the killing.

The police response to the protesters, however, was astounding. It started with mass arrests. Journalists were picked up and detained for not leaving a McDonald’s fast enough. Days later, an elected official for the City of St. Louis who had been very critical of the police was arrested while sitting in his parked car. (He’s African-American.)

Then there was their gear. The Ferguson Police Department looked more like a part of the U.S. Army in Iraq or a battalion in eastern Ukraine than a municipal police force. Unarmed and predominantly black protesters were met with cops decked out in helmets, shields and combat boots. They fired deafening noise devices, spectacular light bombs, rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds and busy intersections. They patrolled the streets in armored cars resembling tanks or Humvees armed to the teeth.

The clash between citizens and police has raised a troubling question: Just how militarized have police forces in this country become? This police force in Missouri isn’t an anomaly. The amazing display of excessive force from Ferguson has simply highlighted a national trend.

A lot of the gear used by the Missouri cops came from the federal government. For almost 20 years now, the Department of Defense has had a program that granted excess military items to local police forces. The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have apparently created a surplus of big, heavy military vehicles. Many of them, known as mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, are sold or sometimes even given to local police forces here in the United States.

That’s just one program. Other programs assist police departments in purchasing military assault rifles, armored vehicles, shields and helmets. The militarization of our police force shows that the police can – and often do – declare war on its own citizens. From the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City to Ferguson, militarized police forces appear to be the response to protesting citizenry. Politicians of all stripes, from President Barack Obama to Sen. Rand Paul, have come down hard on the Ferguson Police Department.

Can it happen here? Maybe it already has.

Remember the Bearcat? Last year, the Maui Police Department acquired an armored vehicle known as the Lenco “Bearcat” that can withstand a .50-caliber projectile. That’s the same ammunition size used in World War II for anti-aircraft guns. The U.S. Coast Guard uses .50-caliber rifles to disable armed helicopters. I’m not sure if a .50-caliber weapon had ever been used against a police officer on Maui. Make no mistake: The Bearcat can take the hit.

But the vehicle caused a minor stir. Many just could not fathom why the police needed something so vicious. Folks wondered why the county spent $280,000 for such a beast of a machine.

Mayor Alan Arakawa came to the defense of the police. The mayor wrote that the Bearcat would “ensure the safety of our officers and the citizens of Maui County.” It is unclear if a federal grant was used too.

The mayor also reported that then-Police Chief Gary Yabuta told him that Maui wasn’t the only county with such a vehicle. He said that Honolulu and the Big Island had Bearcats, and soon Kauai would have one too.

Our mayor provided a scary scenario in which the Bearcat could come in handy. He reminded us about the hostage standoff in Kahului a few years ago. In that situation, the vehicle would have been an asset for the officers who had to get into the line of fire.

The mayor has a point. A vehicle that can withstand enormous firepower would always be an asset for officer safety. But even he had to admit that something as dramatic as a hostage standoff is infrequent on the Valley Isle.

So what to do with the Bearcat in the meantime? Has it been used since it was purchased? How much does it cost to maintain it? Couldn’t we at least use it as a float in the Maui Fair parade?

Perhaps the Ferguson police had this problem too before officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death. Then, when the shooting sparked civil unrest, they finally found a reason to use all that gear from the Pentagon. It makes me wonder what we might end up using the Bearcat for and when that day will come. Let’s hope never.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Iselle and Julio. These two were the stars of last week’s news cycle. They convinced me to buy water and canned goods, top off my gas tank and bring in deck chairs. They even got me to bring the dog into the house – a true first.

Newscasters went crazy over them. Thankfully it ended without any major injuries or death. Iselle took on the Big Island and quickly broke up. Julio wandered north and sent nothing here other than a summer swell.

The whole ordeal got me thinking why we name storms in the first place. Naming something personalizes it. Tornadoes in Kansas don’t have names. Neither do the icy, winter blizzards that wreak havoc across the Great Plains. Why the different treatment? How come we name hurricanes, tropical storms, depressions and typhoons? It might’ve started with a colorful weatherman.

It might have started with Clement Wragge, an English meteorologist sent to Queensland, Australia. Wragge started naming storms in his weather bulletins.

Wragge was a real character. His statements on storm movements and their names were highly entertaining. For example, in 1899 he informed the Australian public about a new tropical disturbance named Mahina. “Mahina,” he explained, “is a girl’s name culled from fair Tahiti with its coral strand, waving palm trees and mountain peaks. . . . We fear . . . that Mahina will not prove so soft and gentle as the Tahitian maiden of that name.” Other times he’d use names from the Bible, mythological creatures and even politicians he didn’t like.

Author George Stewart is believed to have come across Wragge 40 years later. Stewart wrote a novel called “Storm,” in which his main character is Maria, a nontropical storm that ravages California for 12 days. Maria got her name from a junior meteorologist who named systems after ex-girlfriends.

Real-life meteorologists assigned to Saipan in the middle of World War II were fans of the book. They started naming storms after their wives. By 1945, the military approved of a list of names for typhoons in the Western Pacific.

The names came in handy. Instead of using difficult coordinates to identify the storm in bulletins and communications, a quick name for a system that lasted for several days proved ideal and easy to use.

Naming the large storms caught on in military weather bureaus. By 1950, the National Weather Service adopted the practice. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, the Central Pacific bureau had adopted a list. For the rest of the 20th century, tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and Pacific had names. The Indian Ocean basins came out with lists in the early 2000s.

But there are rules to naming a storm. First off, not every rain cloud gets an appellation. In order to be a named storm, it has to be a cyclone, like a tropical depression or a tropical storm. From there, the name depends on where it started.

The ocean is carved up into different regions. In the Pacific, there’s the east, which is right off the coast of Mexico. That’s where most of our tropical cyclones get real close to Hawaii. The eastern Pacific has six lists of names for storms in alphabetical order (inexplicably excluding the letter Q). Iselle and Julio were on the list. (Karina, Lowell and Marie are next). The same list is used after a six-year period. The Central Pacific has its list of Hawaiian names. That’s where Iniki, Iwa and the more recent Wale came from.

The names are used over and over again until they’re retired. A name gets off the list when the storm causes a great deal of damage. That’s why there will never be another Katrina or Iniki. Flossie, on the other hand, wasn’t destructive enough to get it off the list. Expect another storm named Flossie in 2019.

The names themselves are created by a committee from each region. The Central Pacific uses Hawaiian names. The Eastern Pacific tends to use Spanish names since they originate off the coast of Mexico. The name game gets even more complicated in the Western Pacific. There, a group of countries in the region like Japan, Korea and China get to pick names on the list. The end result is a hodgepodge of different names from all over Asia and it’s not in alphabetical order.

As for the names themselves, they are not intended to target any group of people or a particular person. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the names are designed to be short, easy to communicate, and familiar to the people in the region in which they originate.

So much for Wragge’s practice of naming storms after politicians. Given the timing of the primary election, this would have been a perfect opportunity to name these storms Colleen and Brian.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Our County Council stoked an old fire this week. It’s about foam. The council heard testimony both for and against a ban on plastic foam containers that would essentially force food vendors to look at an alternative to the most common way to serve plate lunches and takeout food.

We’ve all seen and used the product before. The white, round clamshell containers are found in nearly every eatery that serves food from a counter. Polystyrene – the generic term for what everyone calls Styrofoam – containers are commonly associated with our beloved plate lunches.

The ban was first proposed six years ago. Back then, the council deferred action so it could study the issue some more. Now, the council has revived consideration of the bill because it’s been deferred for so long.

Despite the long respite, the exact same arguments both for and against the bill emerged. Not surprisingly, there are business owners against the bill. Food vendors and the Maui Chamber of Commerce president testified in opposition of the legislation. The polystyrene containers are cheap, light and easy to find. Switching to paper containers may be nice, some have argued, but it would be too costly. Biodegradable products are more expensive than their polystyrene counterpart. (Back in 2009, when the bill first came up for debate, it was estimated that a plate lunch would cost an extra 15 to 25 cents.)

This isn’t the first time the business community has raised a hue and cry over containers. In 2011, businesses opposed the ban on plastic bags. Their reasoning was eerily similar: paper is too costly, it will hurt sales, and we will be forced to pass the cost on to the customer. Despite these objections, the bill carried the day, the ban went into effect, and things started to change for the better.

Suddenly, it no longer required seven or eight thin plastic bags to bag a handful of groceries. My mother missed plastic bags so my brother in Honolulu would bring them over for her whenever he visited. It was like we were living in some Eastern European communist country, and my brother from the West would smuggle in plastic bags for us.

But eventually, her need for plastic bags waned, and she started keeping her reusable bags in the car. She wasn’t alone. Consumer habits on Maui did, in fact, start to change. Now after four years most folks don’t even notice the ban.

That is, until you go to Honolulu. Shopping there is still a shock for me when the plastic bags are used at the grocery stores, gas stations and other points of sale. Not only that, they’re also in the gutters, flapping in tree branches, and pressed up against chain-link fences. Seems like the ban on bags wasn’t so bad after all.

Now polystyrene is on the chopping block.

We aren’t the only ones grappling with a ban like this. The north shore town of Kilauea on Kauai has already implemented a ban. A big sign greets visitors to the town reading: “Welcome to Kilauea. A Styrofoam Free Community.” The efforts to rid the town of plastic foam food containers were spearheaded by the Kauai Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and other nonprofit organizations on the island. Some townships on the Mainland are also following suit. Perhaps Maui is next.

So why ban them in the first place? Well, first there’s the environment. For a long time now, scientists have told us that polystyrene is nonbiodegradable. That means it will not break down like paper products. It’s estimated that that takeout box we use once will take hundreds of years to break down and return to the earth.

Apparently it’s not just the environment that suffers. In the cities that have banned polystyrene, lawmakers have cited a link between styrene – which is contained in polystyrene – and cancer. And this month, the National Research Council announced that styrene “is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Whatever that means.

Questions remain. How exactly does styrene in a plastic cup get into the human body? Does it come from breaking down in the environment? But what about all this stuff about containers taking hundreds of years to break down in the first place? Apparently nobody testifying before the council this week had any expertise on this issue, and the bill was shelved for another time (yet again).

And so action has been deferred. For now, we can save a few cents and still get takeout in a bright, white polystyrene container. A container that will take centuries to dissolve and a container that could be “reasonably anticipated” to contain carcinogens. Until a more definitive study comes out, I guess we can enjoy the bright, white, nonbiodegradable and possibly cancer-causing clamshells holding the food we eat.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”