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WAINIHA, Kauai — From farming equipment to childhood photographs, Kehau Haumea lost everything when flood waters swept through her riverside home.
What she salvaged amounts to little more than her seven dogs and an unwavering resolve to rebuild.
The 63-year-old taro farmer was born and raised in Wainiha. Despite her property’s precarious perch on the river, she vowed to remake the house she shares with her husband. For now, they will live in her brother’s garage.
“I think we took a little too much from the world,” said Haumea, suited in blue rubber boots to protect herself from contaminated beach sand and water. “This is Mother Nature’s way of saying, ‘OK, guys, it’s time for me to take something away from you. But I’m not going to take no life, I’ll take the land. I’ll give it back someday.”
Kauai is healing after a disastrous flood deluged farms and bedrooms, and ripped houses off their foundations.
A dozen landslides have shut down the lone road to the farthest reaches of the island’s North Shore, making it difficult, if not impossible, for residents in the isolated communities of Wainiha and Haena to shop for food, refill prescription medicine, attend school or get to work.
“It’s like walking around in a different world,” Haumea said. “We are cut off from civilization. No tourists, no traffic.”
The record-setting storm April 14 and 15 dumped so much rain in a 24-hour period that the island’s primary rain gauge broke. At least 446 people have been evacuated by helicopter from the areas hardest hit by flooding, crumbling cliff faces and sinkholes.
Officials are working to quantify the damage in an effort to secure disaster recovery funding from the federal government.
No one was severely injured. Rather, the casualties of the epic storm have taken the form of people’s homes, jobs and the North Shore tourism industry’s future.
“Everyone has been so busy helping and volunteering with the relief efforts for the people who lost everything,” said Gregg Winston, whose Hanalei dive tour and gear rental company has been shut down indefinitely.
“But now everybody’s starting to wake up and say, ‘Well, we don’t have a car anymore because it got flooded out. I haven’t been to work in four days. My boss just fired me. Now I can’t pay my bills and I can’t make my rent or my mortgage.’ The shock is starting to set in. I just hope we don’t end up with a big homeless crisis.”
Winston’s business, Watersports Adventures, is located at the Hanalei River Boat Yard, which the storm has turned into an island. He can’t access his fleet of kayaks and stand-up rental boards. Even if he could, the beach fronting his ocean sports company is posted with signs that read, “No Swim” and “Bad Water.”
The dive tour aspect of his enterprise is also on hold because the reef known as Tunnels off of Makua Bay is inaccessible due to the ongoing closure of Kuhio Highway between Waikoko and Wainiha. The road, smothered in thousands of pounds of mud and debris, is plagued by steep, unstable cliff slopes and crumbling pavement.
State officials set May 7 as the date by which one-lane access for emergency vehicles is expected to be restored along the full length of the road. But it’s hard to say when road access will reopen to the public.
Unable to operate, Winston has been forced to lay off his employees. One of them is his daughter, a single mother who helped him establish the business.
“I advised her to go look for a job at another dive shop,” Winston said. “If she’s working for another company she’ll be able to feed her son, but she won’t be able to help rebuild this business. That could end the legacy of our family business.
“We’re just going to band together as much as we can to try and stay together as a family. We are some of the lucky ones because our home and our lives are fine. But what we do to pay our bills and pay our mortgage and feed ourselves is destroyed.”
Joblessness is rippling through the North Shore community in many forms. Some restaurants and shops have endured so much flood damage that they’ve been forced to lay off their entire staff. Other businesses are open, but managers are slashing workers’ hours and shifts to match a steep slump in tourism traffic.
There’s ample work available for tree trimmer Kona Wong.
The problem is that his home and his job are on opposite ends of the road closure. Stranded in Wainiha, Wong has been volunteering daily to help with storm recovery efforts. Although he’s proud to help his neighbors, he said he’s concerned about mounting bills.
“We still got to pay the rent, job or no job,” Wong said.
The flood has made Sarah Perry’s home in Wainiha uninhabitable. The house has been in her husband’s family for generations.
Perry has been able to hold on to her job as a rental property manager, but her husband is temporarily laid off from the restaurant where he works as a line cook. This puts the family in precarious financial straits.
“Two of my kids are starting school at the satellite classroom that’s being set up out here, and the other one is in middle school over on the other side of the road closure,” Perry said. “So do we split up? Or do we all try to stay together? The only thing we have figured out so far is that it’s not safe to breathe here with all the mold so there’s no way we can stay.”
Jonathan Noe escaped the flood with his dog Kingston, three outfits and a bottle of Bourbon valued at $1,200. Nearly everything else — two cars, a computer and the rest of the contents of his Wainiha rental house — was destroyed.
The experience has Noe considering a move to higher ground.
“Right now a bottle of Bourbon is the most precious thing I own,” said Noe, a 28-year-old chef. “That has really changed my mind about living in a flood plain in a house on 5-foot stilts.”
Ian Bavies lost all of his belongings when the flood water rushed through his Hanalei rental house, sweeping the appliances off his kitchen countertops. So he moved in with his girlfriend, whose house in Wainiha was less severely flooded.
While attempting to move a boulder to redirect a current of flood water blasting against her house, a large rock fell on his right hand and broke two metacarpals. Now Bavies, who works as a lifeguard and restaurant food runner, can’t return to work until his cast comes off.
“I’m stressed about everything,” the 23-year-old said. “I have truck payments. I don’t have anywhere to live. There’s no money coming in. I don’t have socks, I don’t have any clothes and I even lost my birth certificate. It’s something that definitely really shook me up to realize how quickly everything can go.”
While some shop owners are sending out the message that Hanalei is ready for tourists to return, others are encouraging non-residents to stay clear of the town while locals piece their lives back together.
A handwritten sign at the town’s entryway urging folks who don’t live in Hanalei to keep out has been taken down. But the sentiment still lingers.
“Basically, Hanalei is like a semi-cesspool,” said John Sargent, owner of North Shore Bike Doktor. “My personal feeling is they shouldn’t really be letting tourists in the mess that’s going on here. People are cleaning up their houses after losing everything, just trying to put their lives together.”
The point has so far been moot for Sargent, who on Wednesday encountered no customers as he used a power washer to rid his rental bicycles of a thick glaze of muck.
“It’s all perspective,” Sargent said. “I’ve got some $6,000 bikes that were submerged in mud water. But there are about 16 cars sunk in Hanalei Bay right now.”
Business owners that are dependent on tourists are bracing for a sustained financial slump.
“People are just not coming,” said Napali Kayak owner Josh Comstock, who has been sleeping in his garage since flood waters ravaged his house. “They aren’t just canceling their Napali Kayak trip, they’re canceling their entire Hawaii trip.”
Marissa Kreber, manager of Pedal and Paddle, said the shop, which specializes in gear rentals for water sports, expects to have a difficult summer now that several of the North Shore’s bucket list beaches are blocked by landslides.
“I’ve talked to customers who are talking about canceling their trips because they can’t hike the trail, they can’t snorkel at Tunnels, they can’t swim because the water is contaminated,” Kreber said. “All of their favorite things to come to Kauai and do are now off limits.”
Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau, said tourists can help with the flood recovery by patronizing Hanalei’s businesses. Although more than a dozen restaurants, shops and boat tour outlets are closed, most of the town is open and eager for foot traffic.
“For the people saying, ‘Stay out of Hanalei town,’ you are basically giving them a double hit because that is not helping people get back to work and get back in business,” Kanoho said.
“But I think people coming in need to be respectful because some of these residents have suffered great damage and great loss. Being a looky-loo is not helpful.”
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