In every disaster, there’s good, bad and ugly. This one, too.

Ugly is the storm itself, a system that dumped unprecedented volumes of rain, and which persisted over the same Kauai North Shore valleys for long, long hours.

The devastation of the April 15-16 storm is hard to grasp, especially given the isolation of the areas of worst damage. It was sunny and blue on the south and west sides of Kauai on Tuesday, while North Shore residents were facing weeks and months of digging out and rebuilding.

The flooding was incomprehensible, ripping out and floating away houses, raising flood levels so fast people barely had time to climb on their roofs where lifeguards conducted rescues on paddleboards and Jet Skis … in towns.

Local residents used their personal boats to jumpstart the rescue efforts for flood victims stranded on the outer reaches of Kauai’s North Shore.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The storm smashed our North Shore highway off the side of the cliff in places and covered it in a dozen landslides. The entire communities from Hanalei through Wainiha and Haena were isolated — and the last two communities will remain accessible only by air or boat for at least weeks.

Who can forget the otherworldly images of river-swimming bison roaming the famous beaches and reefs of Hanalei? And of a cowboy on a Jet Ski trying to rope a bison in the surf.

And the bad. Folks offering to give boat rides to stranded residents and visitors, and then holding them up for large cash contributions. People looting local businesses in the night. Individuals ripping off and hoarding emergency supplies.

But the good is overwhelming.

A Surplus Of Assistance

This community delivered truckloads upon truckloads of food, water and supplies to the stranded via multiple routes.

Boating companies canceled tours to haul supplies and rescue the isolated. County, contracted and military helicopters made repeated trips into the blast zones. Local surfers on their personal watercraft hauled people to safety.

Community volunteers, while their own homes languished wet and muddy, assisted in clearing roads. Residents sheltered newly homeless neighbors. Local helicopter companies and individuals donated helicopter time. Niihau Ranch supplied its military surplus landing craft to haul a dump truck and other heavy equipment for the relief effort to the beach at Wainiha. There was no other way to get that kind of equipment there with roads out.

Local businesses donated selflessly. So did local residents. If anything, at the peak of the emergency, there was a surplus of offers of assistance. The Kauai Emergency Management Agency established a special team to manage donations.

Monday’s Kauai Emergency Management Agency briefing with Gov. David Ige and Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. in attendance.

Office of the Governor

Help came from off-island as well. Every Emergency Management Agency in the state offered help, and several had staffers assisting on Kauai. Coast Guard and National Guard aircraft were in the air over Kauai within hours.

Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., suffering from a bad cold, worked long hours on the emergency. Gov. David Ige was on-island and took a number of actions, including authorizing emergency expenditures and such seemingly mundane actions as giving storm-afflicted residents a break on tax filing deadlines. County Council members and state legislators spent hours at the Emergency Operations Center overseeing the efforts, as they’ll be asked to appropriate funds to assist.

Every emergency response agency under the sun showed up.

The state’s emergency management organization got a lot of grief for the false nuclear attack alarm a few weeks ago, but this is the kind of disaster it has trained for and manages well. 

Paniolo crews lasso buffalo ended up in Hanalei Bay after flash flooding washed the animals down river.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The dozens of response teams conducted emergency response by day, and worked through the nights on planning for the next day. This was government at work, but like no government work you’ve seen. Each morning a detailed multi-page planning and operations guide was handed out — before 6 a.m. It was updated as tasks were accomplished and as missions changed from disaster response to disaster recovery and longer term logistics.

New Hawaii Emergency Management administrator Thomas Travis, on the job only a couple of weeks, showed up from Oahu and appropriately took a supportive role. Overall coordination was handled by Kauai emergency management officials Elton Ushio and his aide, Chelsie Sakai.

Every emergency response agency under the sun showed up.

Working alongside were firefighters, police, medical personnel, utility representatives, finance and planning teams, communications experts, nongovernment organizations like the Red Cross, highways folks, attorneys and a whole lot of folks assigned to duties outside their normal occupations — hundreds of people on the ground, in the air, on the water, in heavy equipment, behind computers, huddled over maps and lists.

Ultimately, disaster response is an inexact science, chaos barely managed. To those in crisis, progress often seems intensely slow and confusing.

There will doubtless be critical review after-the-fact, much of it negative. But as someone who has worked many disasters in Hawaii over the past 40 years, this one seems to be in good hands, and competently managed.

Editor’s note: The author is a member of the Hawaii Advisory Council on Emergency Management.

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About the Author

  • Jan TenBruggencate

    Jan TenBruggencate was the science and environment writer and Kauai Bureau Chief for the Honolulu Advertiser. He left to start a communications consulting firm, Island Strategy LLC. His science writing has generated awards from the Hawaii Audubon Society, Hawaiian Academy of Science, The Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Council for Hawaii and others.