NORTH SHORE, Kauai — It was the buffalo standing in the surf at Hanalei Beach that did it, reinforcing the reality that the weekend storm that rocked Kauai was different beyond conceivable description.

For 36 hours — and, as this is written, this epic storm is not over and a flash flood warning continues in effect for a couple more hours — Kauai has withstood the storm of all storms. The poor buffalo, loose from a herd nearby, could not have been more bewildered than the island’s humans, both residents and visitors.

There was thunder so intense it shook houses at the level of a strong earthquake and rain so heavy that more than 28 inches fell in 24 hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning in Hanalei. It brought Kauai, sometimes literally, to its knees over the weekend.

The storm evolved so quickly and in so many different ways that island residents had difficulty accepting the sheer gravity of what they heard and saw for themselves and received from friends and neighbors on social media.


A buffalo, separated from a nearby herd, wanders Hanalei Beach in the midst of a 36-hour storm that dumped about 27 inches of rain in the area. Courtesy of Ian Nelson


• An estimated five separate major landslides shut down Kuhio Highway, the only access to the North Shore, starting Saturday evening. Crews were forced to retreat early in the evening. By Sunday morning, the Kauai Fire Department was rescuing stranded residents by jet ski. Residents reported seeing rescue craft navigating through yards.

• The Hanalei River, which was at historic levels above flood stage during the night, overflowed so severely that vehicles were overturned in the parking lot at Black Pot Beach, a popular local gathering point right at the Hanalei Pier. It appeared on video posted to Facebook and from resident accounts that the river may have altered course permanently.

A truck and ATV pushed up against a fence in Kalihiwai Valley on Kauai after a flash flood pushed through the area. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

• A ham radio operator broadcasting Sunday afternoon observed that the simplest description of Hanalei was the most accurate. “It looks,” he said, “like a huge lake.”

• On Kalihiwai Ridge, above Kilauea Town, a section of culvert collapsed, cutting the only access to the neighborhood. A section of the road had disintegrated to a depth of about 30 feet.

• The owner of a successful local yoga studio and her husband were forced to retreat to a studio when their house was unexpectedly inundated. They had only time to gather a few belongings and animals, ranging from cats to rabbits.

• For several hours, Kilauea, home of an iconic lighthouse, was cut off from the rest of the North Shore when Kuhio Highway was cut by debris from a clogged storm drain. Traffic quickly backed up more than 2 miles.

• Police moved into the Kalihiwai beach neighborhood, where officers went from house to house warning residents and tourists that a reservoir in the mountains above was at risk of bursting. It’s just a few miles from where a similar failure in 2006 killed seven people. By late Sunday afternoon, pressure had reportedly been relieved at the reservoir, narrowly avoiding what could have been an unspeakable tragedy.

• In Moloaa, a large tool bin washed down a swollen stream that had overflowed, threatening access bridges for at least three homes. People stood defiantly on the crossings, almost daring the stream to continue threatening them.

• The farthest communities on the North Shore, including Haena and Wainiha, were entirely cut off by the series of slides. State work crews had to retreat late Saturday afternoon, leaving dozens of residents to get through the night in fear as waters rose to lanai levels and sometimes flowed inside. On Powerhouse Road, above Wainiha, a small house washed entirely off its foundations and fell downhill as a tourist couple in a vacation rental nearby looked on in horror.

The question “How big was it?” will survive for years into the future. The National Weather Service recorded more than 28 inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period in Hanalei. One rain gauge in Hanalei reported more than 36 inches of rain. 

The all-night thunder and lightning show shook houses up and down the North Shore so severely that residents with experience with California earthquakes estimated the storm produced the equivalent of a 6.0 or even 6.5 temblor. Then, after a brief intermission late Sunday morning, the sound and light show resumed and continued until late afternoon. Its visual effects evoked memories of acid trips in the 1960s.

By the time Gov. David Ige and Kauai County Mayor Bernard Carvalho declared states of emergency Sunday afternoon, the miracle was that — as far as had been discovered to that point, at least — there had been no lives lost and no serious injuries.

Flooding of the Hanalei River on Kauai’s North Shore left Hanalei looking like a “huge lake,” according to one resident, and left some communities cut off. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

A waterfall right next to Kuhio Highway between Kilauea and Princeville that flows all the time but is little noticed by passing traffic gushed so hard that a mist that blew across the roadway looked a little bit like Niagara Falls.

Worrisomely, the flow is only about a hundred feet from a section of hillside that collapsed a couple of weeks ago, briefly cutting traffic flow on the island’s only artery from two lanes to one. It held, at least for the moment.

One weather observer counted, during a two-hour period between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., 60 lightning strikes per minute from time to time.

The Red Cross opened shelters for a few hours at a time in Kapaa and Princeville, in addition to one in Hanalei that had been in operation since sometime early Saturday. The primary Red Cross shelter in Hanalei was accommodating residents whose homes were destroyed, badly damaged or inaccessible.

Debris lies in Kalihiwai Stream after massive rainfall triggered flash flooding on Kauai’s north shore. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

About 40 people were staying at the shelter in Hanalei as of Sunday morning, said Coralie Chun Matayoshi, chief executive officer for the Red Cross in Hawaii.

Kauai County spokeswoman Sarah Blane said county officials had to call in off-duty firefighters, police officers and lifeguards Saturday night to rescue about a half-dozen people who were trapped by rising floodwaters in Hanalei.

The heavy rainfall damaged or flooded dozens of homes in Hanalei, Wainiha, Haena, and Anahola, the county said.

By late afternoon, Hanalei residents were cautiously coming out of their isolation and realizing that the town had been, essentially, almost entirely under water — though not deep enough to flow into more than a handful of homes.

But then there was the lonely buffalo in Hanalei. What he or she was thinking was impossible to know, but it could not have been good.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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