With parts of Kauai’s North Shore cut off by severe flooding, residents of Oahu’s Leeward Coast are increasingly concerned about their lack of options should a natural disaster close the Farrington Highway — their only way in or out.
Traversing the highway is no picnic on even a typical weekday. Its traffic volume has increased from an average of 20,000 vehicles per day in 2000 to 50,000 in 2016, according to the state Department of Transportation.
And the Leeward Coast has seen extreme weather before. A 15-day rain event in 1996 produced 24 inches of rain in Makaha Valley, an area where the annual rainfall normally ranges from 20 to 40 inches.
In December 2008, a storm dumped 12 inches of rain within one day, causing significant damage.
After the 2008 storm, the Farrington Highway was impassable for several hours and homes near Makaha Beach were damaged. Debris and trash also clogged drains and dead animals washed onto the beach and into nearshore waters.
Waianae resident Joy Inada, who has lived in the community for more than 10 years, said past experiences with severe weather and the news out of Kauai has her worried about her family’s safety.
She and her husband once got caught in floodwaters on Farrington Highway by Honokai Hale in Kapolei that tipped their car onto its side.
“Waianae just doesn’t have an option and we need another road to get out,” she said. “All these back roads and emergency roads, they only go in circles and lead back to Farrington.”
If the highway were closed, residents could be isolated like those in Haena and Wainiha on Kauai.
“Waianae just doesn’t have an option and we need another road to get out. All these back roads and emergency roads, they only go in circles and lead back to Farrington.” — Joy Inada
The area’s legislators have made efforts to find alternative routes, and there is an agreement between the state and the U.S. military to allow emergency public use of a military bypass road from Waianae through the mountains to Wahiawa in Central Oahu. But that route still needs repairs after the heavy rains of December 2008.
And state emergency officials offer assurances that just like in Kauai, rescuers would find a way to assist stranded Leeward Coast residents even if that help had to come by water or air.
The DOT’s Highways Division has flagged stretches of Farrington as particularly vulnerable to erosion. Its focus right now is to fortify the roadway along Makaha with boulders and other temporary barriers while crafting a more long-term plan to address the sea level rise there.
House Bill 1378 requires the state Department of Transportation to develop plans for the construction of secondary access roads to and from Waianae.
The plans are supposed to include route maps, timelines for implementation and measures to avoid or mitigate disruption of access to currently available routes.
Rep. Cedric Gates, who introduced the bill, said he has secured $3 million for the project. Once the preliminary plans and designs are complete, it will be available for public input.
“Hearing from the people and them being so stern on the fact that we need another entrance in and out of our coastline, it was a no-brainer for me to introduce this legislation,” Gates said.
But possible alternative routes already exist.
Rep. Andria Tupola said she has met with the Navy and the Army regarding Kolekole Pass, a military bypass road from Waianae through the mountains to Wahiawa in Central Oahu.
Since 2001 the military has had a memorandum of understanding with the state Department of Civil Defense to open the road to civilian traffic during an emergency or natural disaster as an alternative route for evacuating Leeward Coast residents.
Emergency use of the road is determined on a case-by-case basis. The city must make a request to the state, which passes it on to the Navy and Army. It was open to the general public during emergency situations four times from 2002 to 2007.
“There are different ways that we would approach it from an emergency point of view but for the people there, ‘Don’t panic, help is on the way.'” — Richard Rapoza, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency
But at least one section of the road is limited to single-lane traffic after 2008 caused rockslides and severely undercut a hillside below the roadway.
The Navy is responsible for repair of the road, but “There is no current repair work on Kolekole Pass underway,” Navy spokeswoman Kathy Isobe said in an email.
Tupola said she spoke to Rear Adm. Brian Fort about the Navy or Army nominating Kolekole Pass to an internal board of engineers that provides overall direction for civil-military construction projects.
Another idea championed by Gates and state Sen. Maile Shimabukuro calls for expansion of the Waianae Coast Emergency Access Road by condemning the locked portion of Paakea Road, a private sidestreet in Lualualei that runs through Hakimo Road and connects to Lualualei Naval Road.
Drivers from Maili, Waianae or Makaha would be able to connect to the emergency access road at the gated portion of Paakea Road and continue down Lualualei Naval Road back to the highway. That would allow them to avoid the usual bottleneck in Nanakuli or gridlock in case of an obstruction along Farrington Highway.
The recently approved state budget provides $2 million to condemn the road in fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1.
If West Oahu residents need to be evacuated while Farrington Highway is closed, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency officials say help will be available.
“A number of resources will come into the community as we’ve seen in Kauai, out in that isolated area,” said Richard Rapoza, the agency’s public information officer. “They’re isolated but the state and the counties find a way to get resources into them.”
Rapoza said the city and the Red Cross would open shelters and in the case of evacuation, emergency officials would review all their options, including rescue boats and helicopters.
“There are different ways that we would approach it from an emergency point of view but for the people there, ‘Don’t panic, help is on the way,'” he said.
Rapoza also said the Leeward Coast is unlikely to face the same problems as Kauai’s North Shore because West Oahu has more medical clinics.
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