Ten drownings in three weeks on Maui have grabbed the attention of Hawaii lawmakers who want the state to step up ocean safety efforts in the isles.
Eight of the fatal incidents involved visitors, including the most recent death Saturday of an 80-year-old Alaska man who was snorkeling — by far the most common activity in drowning incidents.
State legislators have introduced bills to beef up public safety campaigns and provide more resources for lifeguards, especially in areas known to be perilous that are nonetheless drawing ever more tourists.
But if the Legislature’s track record in recent years is any indication, the measures may struggle to gain traction.
Last year, ocean safety advocates said lawmakers actually did more harm than good. The Legislature let expire a liability protection that lifeguards had for 15 years, opening them up to lawsuits. A group of prominent personal injury lawyers with strong ties to House leaders provided the only testimony in favor of eliminating the immunity.
That issue is back before the Legislature this session as a top priority of county mayors and council members, as are several other issues that either stalled last year or bring new ideas to the table in light of the spate of drownings.
No hearing has been set yet for any of the dozen bills that would restore the liability protection but it’s clearly top of mind among county leaders and lifeguards. It’s referenced in public testimony on other measures related to ocean safety, such as House Bill 2097.
That bill, introduced last month by Reps. Ryan Yamane, Lynn DeCoite and Nicole Lowen, would appropriate $1 million to the Department of Land and Natural Resources to hire lifeguards to monitor beach parks. It was heard Wednesday by the House Water and Land Committee, which Yamane chairs.
“With the issue of lifeguard liability hanging over our first responders, and no indication that a legislative solution is at hand, my Fire Department supports the hiring of lifeguards by DLNR for State and county beaches,” Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said in his testimony. “Since all ocean waters are under State jurisdiction, this would seem a reasonable, sensible, and effective path forward.”
The bill was passed Wednesday with amendments to include portions of a different ocean safety bill that stalled earlier this week.
A separate effort to provide funding for lifeguards at Kua Bay at Kakaha Kai State Park on the Big Island cleared the House last year but stalled in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, chaired at the time by Sen. Jill Tokuda.
That measure, House Bill 14, has yet to be scheduled for a hearing this year but is still technically alive in that committee, now chaired by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.
Another version, House Bill 2044, introduced by Lowen and 12 of her colleagues, is set to be heard Thursday by the Labor Committee.
At least four people have drowned at Kua Bay since 2008 and there are many stories of rescues made by passersby. It used to be a place mostly frequented by locals but a growing number of visitors now go since the state improved the road leading to the park.
Rep. Angus McKelvey, whose district covers west Maui to north Kihei, has put forward a bill that would require a portion of the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s tourism special fund to go toward state and county ocean safety programs.
That measure, House Bill 2585, was deferred indefinitely Tuesday in the Tourism Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard Onishi, who did not return a message seeking comment.
McKelvey said some of its contents were inserted into House Bill 1665, which proposes amending the amount of money the counties get from the transient accommodations tax to a percent of the overall revenues, which have skyrocketed with the booming tourism industry.
The counties used to split a percentage of the revenues, but the Legislature changed the law so they instead share a lump sum, which last year was set at $103 million.
By putting McKelvey’s bill into the TAT bill, which already faces resistance from Gov. David Ige’s administration and legislative leaders, passage appears much more difficult.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority is not a fan of the bill taking money from its tourism special fund for ocean safety programs. It uses the fund, which comes from a share of the overall hotel tax revenues, largely for promotional purposes and market research. The fund received $82 million in fiscal 2017, which ended June 30.
The tourism authority said the money for ocean safety programs should come from TAT revenues, not the tourism special fund.
“Diverting a percentage of the TSF to fund ‘state and county ocean safety programs’ would impair HTA’s ability to fund community programs and allocate funding across the board based on rapidly changing circumstances,” HTA Chief Executive Officer George Szigeti said in his testimony Tuesday.
He noted that HTA stepped up to keep the Junior Lifeguard Program alive last year with $250,000 in funding when Honolulu’s budget shortfall threatened to end it. The program trains about 2,000 kids in ocean safety.
“For every negative impression that’s made by a drowning incident, three times the amount of marketing money must be spent to even get a visitor to reconsider Hawaii as a safe place to visit.” — Rep. Angus McKelvey
“Here’s the deal,” McKelvey said in an interview Tuesday. “For every negative impression that’s made by a drowning incident, three times the amount of marketing money must be spent to even get a visitor to reconsider Hawaii as a safe place to visit.”
He said he was “disappointed” that the measure was deferred. He appreciated Onishi inserting its contents into the TAT bill, but said, “that’s pulling it into another fight altogether.”
McKelvey was pleased Wednesday though when the meat of his bill was added to the measure that would give $1 million to DLNR for ocean safety programs.
The measure received strong support from ocean safety advocates and the public worker union that represents lifeguards.
“With the number of beach patrons increasing and also the increase in the number of reported drownings, the state of Hawaii cannot afford to maintain its status quo with the current number of personnel,” Hawaii Government Employees Association Executive Director Randy Perreira said in testimony.
The Legislature has been reluctant to do anything that could potentially hurt the tourism industry that drives the state economy.
Hawaii has set a record for visitor arrivals six years in a row. State officials expect another record in 2018 with an estimated 9.6 million arrivals, and the latest forecast by the Department of Business and Economic Development expects visitor arrivals to steadily increase to 9.8 million by 2020.
Visitors are drowning at nine times the rate of local residents, according to state health department data. A Civil Beat special project in 2016 found the rate drownings was almost 13 times the national average.
Dan Galanis, state epidemiologist, said his drowning database from 1993 to 2016 shows that there were no more than four ocean drownings in a one-week period from Sunday to Saturday.
He said the 10 drownings on Maui in three weeks is “extreme” but could still be a fluke.
“These are relatively rare events and they can cluster for essentially random reasons,” Galanis said in an email. “We do know that more people in the water is associated (unfortunately) with more fatal drownings, so it is possible an influx of visitors to Maui has also contributed.”
He noted that he was unsure how many of the 10 deaths have been definitely ruled as drowning being the underlying or contributing cause.
There have been fewer deaths on the other islands so far this year. Kauai has recorded one drowning, Hawaii Island has had three and Oahu has logged two, according to county officials.
Snorkeling remains by far the most common activity in drowning incidents, with 169 people drowning while snorkeling between 2007 and 2016, according to the state health department. Of those, 156 were visitors and 69 of the incidents took place in Maui waters.
Rep. John Mizuno put forward a new measure this week that would require anyone who rents or sells snorkels to attach a “warning check list” on the snorkel.
McKelvey said the advent of the new full-face snorkel masks, which at least two of the visitors on Maui were wearing when they drowned last month, has created an additional cause for alarm.
He described the masks as “sketchy,” noting the potential for carbon dioxide to build up in some models and difficulty to remove them in an emergency due to the straps on the back of the head.
Civil Beat has been reporting on the full-face masks since 2016 when a California woman, Nancy Peacock, drowned while snorkeling on the Big Island. Her husband, Guy Cooper, has advocated for increased awareness about the potential hazards of the new mask design.
While there has not been any conclusive determination that the full-face masks caused any of the drownings, there has been growing anecdotal evidence that has ocean safety experts concerned. Studies are in the works to help assess the mask design’s safety, and the counties are now tracking what type of mask people were wearing in snorkeling-related drownings.
Bridget Velasco, the state drowning prevention coordinator, said those efforts may complement the continuing efforts to message the public, particularly visitors who are generally not as well exposed to pubic safety announcements as local residents. But she said she anticipates challenges in enforcement of this type of requirement.
The bill is set to be heard Thursday by the Health and Human Services Committee, which Mizuno chairs.
Another measure, Senate Bill 2224, would require hotels to put ocean safety information sheets, developed by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, in rooms no later than Jan. 1.
HTA has received criticism in the past for soft-pedaling their ocean safety videos, brochures and other messaging. Posters put in Hawaii airports in 2016 advised the public to “Know Before You Go. Don’t Be Disappointed.” The image promoted the hawaiibeachsafety.com website, which ocean safety advocates agreed was positive, but they said the language could have been much stronger.
More recent efforts have also come under fire. The state Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee, which HTA is a member of, spent two years developing four 25-second videos that started airing in 25,000 hotel rooms on Oahu in September.
But they are only available on the Real Hawaii TV channel and show every 90 minutes. Their messaging, too, has been criticized as soft by the co-chair of the advisory committee, Ralph Goto. He said last month there needs to be something “a little stronger.”