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Editors Note: Columnist Allan Parachini is a volunteer Community Emergency Response Team member on Kauai. This column is partly based on the accounts of his colleagues who were in Hanalei and other officials who asked not to be quoted by name, as well as his own previous reporting on these topics.
PRINCEVILLE, Kauai — A day spent at the little airport here normally served by sightseeing helicopters, observing the arrivals of more than 200 evacuees from locales ranging from Hanalei to Haena, yields an indelible and overwhelming impression.
The North Shore of the island — and Hanalei, in particular — has been dramatically changed by the epic storm that struck over the weekend. The storm has altered not just the landscape, but likely the style and identity of an area that has grown increasingly upscale in recent years.
Gov. David Ige and Mayor Bernard Carvalho toured the damage Monday morning by helicopter, surveying the swollen Hanalei River, deluged neighborhoods and swamped farmlands.
Emergency rescue crews have so far evacuated more than 220 people by helicopter, 121 by bus and others by water, according to the state. Impassable sinkholes and almost a dozen landslides made travel by car impossible. The Hawaii National Guard has deployed two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, two CH-47 Chinooks, eight Zodiacs and more than 45 soldiers and airmen to support rescue efforts and bring medical aid and food into the area. Many residents have been stranded without electricity or water.
“The immediate problem is access,” Ige said. “Crews are working to restore access to the Hanalei District, but it will take some time.”
In some areas, flood waters remained several feet deep Monday night. Public health officials warned residents to avoid the standing water, which could be swirling with chemicals, flood debris, dead animals and toxic overflow from cesspools.
Flood waters swallowed up cars, claimed the lives of pets and washed away entire homes. On social media, several residents declared themselves homeless and said they had lost everything they own. Others posted tributes to dogs and cats that had died or could not be found.
“Mother Nature is reclaiming the land right now and it’s teaching everyone a lesson.” — Fire Capt. Kurt Leong
“I don’t think in the history of man being out there that it has ever flooded that bad,” said Kauai Fire Capt. Kurt Leong. “This one was unprecedented. It just took the road out. You can’t just clear the road — the road is gone. The lay of the land is totally different. It’ll never be back to what it was. I think there’s going to be a new normal. Those homes that you thought would never be fazed by anything but a tsunami were totally taken out. That’ll rattle you.”
“Mother Nature is reclaiming the land right now and it’s teaching everyone a lesson,” Leong said. “They are going to have to rebuild the map of where you can build and what you can build. Those homes in Hanalei were on giant concrete foundations and as deep as those pilings are it just gave way.”
There were no reports of major injuries. At least two houses on the North Shore completely washed off their foundations, county spokeswoman Sarah Blane said. The houses were vacant, she said.
The Red Cross said volunteers knew of four destroyed homes in Wainiha, and there are probably more homes damaged in Koloa, on the south side, based on aerial photos.
“At this time, it is still too early to estimate the extent of storm damage and costs,” Carvalho said. “Dozens of homes and businesses in the North Shore area and other parts of the island have been damaged, and right now we are focusing on relief and search and rescue efforts.”
The makai side of Weke Road (pronounced “VEK-eh”), historically one of the highest rent districts on the island, was hard hit. The huge rains, more than 28 inches in 24 hours, exploded the Hanalei River over its banks and sent huge jets of water through Black Pot County Park, destroying a restroom structure, overturning vehicles and seemingly altering the basic course of the channel.
Weke Road is the road that defines the beachfront both socially and economically, and has long been a symbol of the incredible affluence that has made Hanalei, increasingly, a place few regular people can afford to live.
The water destroyed the underpinnings of several multi-million-dollar homes right next to Hanalei Pier, leaving them splintered wrecks, sitting on their foundations like deflated tires, according to firefighters and local residents who were in Hanalei.
There has been controversy over these homes for several years because of the cesspools that many of them are hooked up to. As the vacation rental economy has boomed, and the homes have been inhabited more and more by vacationers, those cesspools, which leach effluent under the sand of Hanalei Beach, have come to define Weke Road.
But when the nonprofit Hanalei Watershed Hui obtained state and federal grant money to offer owners of up to 75 homes half the cost of replacing their cesspools with sophisticated septic systems, there were only one or two takers — so few that the offer was eventually rescinded by the government.
Now the storm has wiped out several of those homes, according to emergency workers and local residents. The extent of the damage is a reminder that the Weke Road homes were built on the flood plain.
The damage to many of the homes poses the question whether Kauai County can even permit the structures to be rebuilt, given what is now known about the instability of Weke Road geology.
Farther up Kuhio Highway, in the Wainiha and Haena neighborhoods, several massive slides have wiped out portions of the road. By the accounts of several firefighters and tourists who inspected the damage closely, it’s not just that the pavement fell away and requires regrading and resurfacing. In some cases, the hillsides themselves have disappeared. There is nothing left to pin repairs to.
This is not the first time this has occurred on Kuhio Highway, but the destruction is so complete that complicated engineering techniques will have to be employed to restore some kind of structural integrity to five to seven sections of the road, according to firefighters and North Shore residents who have observed the damage firsthand.
This will all take time. Not days, firefighters and others predicted, but likely weeks and months.
Which means that many residents of Wainiha and Haena will likely be unable to use the highway for an indefinite period. There remain many working families along the highway. They have jobs they must get to, groceries they must buy, kids who have to get to school and normal lives that must be maintained. The beaches west of Hanalei, including the legendary Kee, will be unreachable by highway for the thousands of tourists who flock to them each month.
From descriptions of people who landed Monday at Princeville Airport, the return to normal life is expected to take a very long time.
Complicating the problem is that the construction materials that will be needed to reopen the road will be large in volume and very heavy — heavier, most likely, than existing one-lane bridges can support. This has been known for more than a year as the state Department of Transportation has developed plans for permanent replacements of three so-called temporary bridges in Wainiha.
To get to the three bridges to be replaced, however, will require construction of weight-bearing bypasses for three other bridges just to make it possible to get construction materials to the site, according to firefighters.
With the weekend storm, some of the roadway over which the materials would have to travel no longer exists and the plans for the Wainiha bridge replacements are not yet far enough along for contractors to have been hired, much less for the bypasses to be constructed.
It’s dangerous to ever use the word “forever” to describe these impacts, because “forever” often doesn’t actually mean that. But for Weke Road in Hanalei and Kuhio Highway west of the town, “forever” means, at least, longer than anyone ever imagined.
Civil Beat reporter Brittany Lyte and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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