HANALEI, Kauai— Once every minute or so, a car drives west on Kuhio Highway in Hanalei, approaches the Hanalei School and discovers two “road closed” signs and a large electronic banner that reads “LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY.”

Drivers come to a stop — some with angry or frustrated looks and others just puzzled — for a few seconds before they turn around and head back into town.

There, some will indignantly press Jamie Listman, co-owner of Styles Studio, a full-service salon that also issues marriage licenses, about why they have been prevented from driving on to Makua (Tunnels) beach, the Kalalau Trail or Kee Beach — three of Kauai’s most defining destinations.

All are closed to everyone but local residents indefinitely after the disastrous storm and related flooding that struck Kauai in mid-April.

A tourist applies sunscreen at a jammed parking lot on Hanalei Beach. Hanalei turns into a traffic and parking nightmare some days because nonresidents aren’t allowed to go further up the road. 

Mayor Bernard Carvalho recently extended for 60 days an emergency order that shuts down the entire west end of Kauai to all visitors. Vacation rentals in the area are shuttered. An existing order had been set to expire on July 23. Further extensions are nearly certain.

Officially, the Hawaii Department of Transportation projects October for reopening the road, but few believe that deadline can be met.

The wrath of tourists who run into the roadblock comes down on Jamie Listman and other business owners with unfortunate regularity. Her salon is in the Ching Young Village Shopping Center, some of which flooded. Styles was safe on the second floor, but closed for days.

“They start out pissed,” she said of the indignant tourists, “until I explain to them why the road’s closed. I tell them how residents’ lives have been disrupted. They don’t realize how bad it has been here. Once I explain it, they calm down.”

Welcome to the business recovery of Hanalei, a work definitely still in progress.

Hanalei, on many days, has turned into a traffic and parking nightmare. Once tourists realize Hanalei is as close as they can get to the marquee destinations on the North Shore, they stop there.  It is as if the congestion that had made Kee difficult to reach for everyone has relocated to Hanalei.

The parking problem has become so severe that the Hanalei Watershed Hui, a local environmental nonprofit, put four interns from Duke University on a study of how much parking Hanalei has, where more could be created and whether tourists on the beach would accept shuttle transportation.

Using Google Earth, the interns calculated that Hanalei Town has 1,440 spaces — nowhere near enough. Some community leaders have pushed a plan to change shopping center parking lots from free to paid, but merchant pushback has been quick.

Geoff Culverhouse, manager of Ching Young, said his company owns 4 acres of vacant land in town that could be transformed — temporarily, at least — into supplemental parking.

Culverhouse and business owners agreed that disruption of Hanalei’s business climate has developed differently from what many expected.

Weke Road, pictured near a major washout, remains closed to tourists three months after the huge floods that hit Kauai. Allan Parachini

Jimit Mehta, owner of the iconic local eatery Kalypso, said that after a severe dip right after the storm, his business volume has stabilized. The lunch crowd is larger, he said, and dinner a little lighter, because there are few accommodations beyond Hanalei town. Hanalei has become primarily a day trip destination.

But business is inconsistent, Mehta said, with some days jammed and others much lighter. “You’re finding less people. There are days when it’s packed and days when it looks dead,” Mehta said. “It’s the strangest thing.”

The Dolphin, one of Hanalei’s largest eateries, remains shuttered because its building was inundated by 6 feet of water in the flood. Ola’s, a gallery in the Dolphin building, has announced it is going out of business at the end of October.

Sharon Britt, who’s owned Ola’s with her husband, Doug, since it opened 36 years ago, said the couple was tiring of the grind of retail and had been unable to come to terms on renewal of the store’s lease, even before the storm.

But the storm, she said, pushed Ola’s over the edge.

“The flood came as we were making up our minds about renewing our lease,” she said. “Mother Nature played a part in our decision. We have had our share (of disasters.)”

Culverhouse has a clearly dispositive means of concluding that restaurants are doing about as well as this time in 2017. His shopping center operates a sewage treatment plant that processes wastewater from at least a half dozen restaurants and a supermarket. He said volumes of sewage going through the plant are more or less exactly what they were a year ago.

The all-important resident access pass needed to go beyond Hanalei to the west end of the island. Allan Parachini

Art galleries, clothing stores and gift shops, however, report business is down — more in some locations than others. Some stores are operating on margins so thin they may not survive until the end of the year, according to several local business people.

Chad Ulmer, who with his wife, Anna, owns the Halelea and Black Pearl galleries, which have three locations including one in the Dolphin building, said recovery in Hanalei has been slow. Fortunately, their other two locations help make up the difference.

Joel Guy, president of the Hanalei-Haena Community Association, said he and others have been studying the feasibility of a shuttle that would run from Princeville to Hanalei and deliver hotel and resort guests to locations in town and at the beach.

Lee Steinmetz, the county transportation planner, said preliminary projections are that the cost of running such service every 15 minutes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily would be at least $60,000 per month.

Where that money would come from is not known.

Longer term, Steinmetz said, the county is considering creation of a business improvement district, which would set a property tax surcharge to be used for a shuttle and other ways to improve access to Hanalei and beyond. The county has not used such an approach in the past, but it is well known in many mainland locations.

“We’re talking with some private donors and the Hanalei community has been looking at some potential funding, but there’s nothing solid yet,” Steinmetz said. “But really, the shuttle issue won’t be settled until there is a better idea of when the road reopens.”

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

Help Power Local, Nonprofit News.

Across the nation and in Hawaii, news organizations are downsizing and closing their doors due to the ever-rising costs of keeping local journalism alive and well.

While Civil Beat has grown year over year, still only 1% of our readers are donors, and we need your help now more than ever.

Make a gift today of any amount, and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,500, thanks to a generous group of Civil Beat donors.

About the Author