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Hawaiian Island MFTs and the Impacts of Sea Level Rise

16 Feb 2021 3:30 PM | Anonymous

Information gathered and presented by Amanda L. Hess, MSc, LMFT, LMHC, MBACP

Introduction to Sea Level Rise around Hawai’i

The sea level off the Hawaiian Islands’ coast is ten inches higher than it was in 1950 ( This increase is mostly due to climate change, ice melting into the ocean, and sinking land, causing major problems.

To address land development and rising sea level, Senate Bill 2381 was introduced in Feb. 2020, prior to COVID-19, by Senator Rhoades of O’ahu. A previous, similar bill did not pass Hawai'i legislature. Legislators are looking to “double shoreline setbacks to 40 feet and set that 2-meter height limit for new developments,” (Lovell, 2019). These parameters were set based on the projection that by the year 2100, seas are expected to rise at least two meters, a conservative estimate. Per Senator Rhoads’ aide, Larry Kane, the rise is accelerating, and the estimate is now projected to occur by 2070 (personal communication with Larry Kane on Jan. 31, 2021). 

Estimations for O’ahu

O’ahu is expected to be the hardest hit island. Even a 1-meter rise could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, (Lovell, 2019; Oleson, 2019). Potentially:

  • 9,400 acres of land would be flooded
  • 2-meters of water would push the beach up against Campbell HS in ‘Ewa
  • Low-lying areas, like Maili and McCully would be under water
  • Mapunapuna would be permanently flooded
  • The sea could reach all the way up to King St. at two meters
  • Most pronounced effect would be Kakaako and Waikiki
  • Magic Island would actually become an island and Waikiki would be lost
  • Parts of Farrington Hwy. in the west and Kam Hwy. in the east would likely be flooded, cutting off sections of the island and preventing transportation of supplies
  • ~13,000 residents impacted (not including tourists and homeless)
  • ~$12.9 billion USD in economic losses
  • The Biggest financial loss in the greater HNL area and Windward side

On O’ahu, at 3-meters and beyond (Oleson, 2019): 

“…There will be major flooding along the southern coast from Diamond Head to Barbers Point. Waikiki, Kakaako, downtown, and Kalihi will flood up to the H1 highway. Seas will reach the gates of Fort Shafter. Facilities at Pearl Harbor will be inundated to mauka of Kamehameha Highway. Ewa Beach will be under one meter. Kailua floods from the marsh side, and Enchanted Lake will be ocean to a depth of two meters.

The area from Haleiwa to Waialua will flood to two meters. At ten meters, the southern shore from Diamond Head to Ewa to Barbers Point disappears by as much as nine meters. Ford Island is gone. Seas will extend mauka to the H1-H2 interchange above Pearl City. Hawaii Kai is up to nine meters under water. Kailua floods completely past Enchanted Lakes. Downtown Haleiwa will be under nine meters of sea…” 

Estimations – Outer Islands

On Kauai, at 3 meters, Hanalei will flood to a depth of a meter, and the small boat harbor at Nawiliwili will flood (Lovell, 2019; Oleson, 2019). On the south coast much of Waimea will be under two meters of sea water. At ten meters the south coast, including Waimea and the Pacific Missile Range, will be up to seven meters underwater. Hanalei will be flooded to five meters; much of Nawiliwili to about a meter.

In Maui, sections Honoapiilani Hwy. are quickly falling into the ocean already. Projections show much of downtown Kahului will be flooded with a two-meter rise in sea level. At three meters, most hotels at Kaanapali on Maui are inundated. Downtown Lahaina floods to two meters as does much of Kihei. Much of downtown Kahului floods. At ten meters each will be submerged up to t=nine meters, including the entire airport.

At three meters, on the Big Island, downtown Hilo floods. The highway at Kailua-Kona is interdicted by the sea. At ten meters much of Hilo and the airport will be underwater by five to six meters; the Kona airport to a lesser, but still inoperable, two meters.

Parts of Molokai are in danger of being cut off with sea level rise and Papahanaumokuakea Maritime National Monument will largely disappear at three meters and completely at ten meters. 

What does flooding mean for residents?

Resources will be overwhelmed. There are approximately nineteen full-time ambulances and two part-time ambulances operating on O’ahu at any given time (Kubota, 2019). Depending on how much their homes flood, residents may be able to continue to live in their homes. At 36-inches of water, the American Red Cross (ARC) deems a home uninhabitable (2012). 

The ARC outlines dwelling damage classification as follows: 

Affected by flood: 

  • extremely minor damage to a dwelling
  • 0-12 in. of water in the living area of the dwelling
  • Standing water in the yard

Minor Damage: 

  • sustained damage and will require repairs, but currently habitable
  • 12-36 in. of water in the living area of the dwelling
  • Basement flooding where it is believed there is no one living in the basement

ARC renders shelter assistance when dwelling experiences the following: 

Major Damage: 

  • not currently habitable, but can be made habitable with repairs
  • 36-60 in. of water in the living area of the dwelling
  • Basement flooding where it is expected the basement is being used as living space
  • The physical plant of the home is under water (e.g. hot water heater, furnace, etc.)


  • currently uninhabitable and cannot be made habitable without extensive repairs that would be too costly (e.g. total loss of structure, complete failure to major structural components)

What does this mean for MFTs?

Potentially, MFTs could be rendered professionally ineffective if directly impacted by disaster, e.g. loss of office, supplies, transportation, internet and phone service, etc (West-Olatunji, 2020). Personally, MFTs could also be exposed to trauma by witnessing their own friends, family, and communities being negatively impacted. They may develop mental health impairment or overindulge in alcohol and other substances to cope and become unable to perform their duties. 

Action Steps for MFTs

Most importantly, MFTs should have a 14-day minimum disaster supply kit ready for both home and business environments (O’ahu Department of Emergency Management, 2017). Looking at recent disaster responses, federal responses and community rebuilding is taking longer since Hurricane Katrina (West-Olatunji, 2020). The unofficial recommendation is to be prepared for six months. MFTs should also consider: 

  • Having regular talks with clients, friends, and families about disaster preparedness
  • Becoming trained in Psychological First Aid
  • Volunteering with helping agencies such as ARC, CERT, DOH Medical Reserve Corps, Search and Rescue, etc. 
  • Coordinating with local organizations to propose a Disaster Mental Health Coalition, like in California
  • If working in a disaster helping role, MFTs should try working in areas other than their own neighborhoods



  • American Red Cross (2012). Disaster Action Team Manual. Pg. 7-5.
  • Lovell (2020). Six Feet Above: Where To Draw The Line On Sea Level Rise. Honolulu Civil Beat. Accessed on 01/28/21 from:
  • Kubota, L. (2019). A new ambulance on Oahu is helping ease the strain on EMS (slightly). Accessed on 02/02/2021 from:,by%20about%205%2C000%20each%20year.
  • NOAA Office for Coastal Management (2021). Assessing Climate Change and Coastal Hazards in Kauai. Accessed on 01/28/21 from:
  • Oleson (2019). How Worried Should We Be About Sea Level Rise? Honolulu Civil Beat. Accessed on 01/28/21 from:
  • Hawaii’s Sea Level Is Rising. Accessed on 01/28/20 from:
  • UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology accessed on 02/01/21 from:
  • West-Olatunji, C. (2020). Disaster Mental Health Counseling: An MHA Credential Course. Accessed on December 19, 2020 from:

About the author

Amanda Hess has over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. She currently works in private practice on the island of O’ahu and volunteers with the O’ahu Medical Reserve Corps.

For more information please visit the HIAMFT website.


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