The owners of multimillion-dollar homes ravaged by record-breaking rainfall last April are flooding county planners with applications to rebuild their residences in place on the soft sands of Hanalei Bay.

It’s not yet known how many of the pending permit applications will win approval. Some homeowners face stricter regulations now than when they first raised their houses. Others will need to prove that the fluctuating shoreline hasn’t encroached onto their property, pushing the residence into a no-build zone.

Kauai County Planning Director Kaaina Hull said just one application to repair a residence has won approval so far. There are seven homes with applications pending for permits to stabilize, repair, rebuild or demolish with the intent to rebuild.

Weke Road homes damaged Kauai Flooding 2018.

Historically, the primary source of flooding in Hanalei is the Hanalei River. It drains Mount Waialeale, which has an astonishing average annual rainfall total of 394 inches.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The homes in question are on Weke Road — or, at least, they were.

The east end of the iconic road that skirts Hanalei Bay collapsed last April under the pressure of floodwater produced by a giant amount of rain that broke a national record. Reconstruction of the road, which services a smattering of houses and the storm-damaged Black Pot Beach Park, began earlier this month. It remains closed to traffic.

Highly visible, the homes here on a crux of sand between Hanalei River and Hanalei Bay are symbols of the area’s notable flood danger — and focal points of the debate over allowing development in hazardous areas.

None of the homeowners could be reached for comment.

Kauai has historically allowed development in areas next to coastlines and rivers vulnerable to flooding. But in recent years county planners have buckled down on this laissez-faire approach as scientific research related to climate change has made clear a need for more stringent policy protections from natural disasters, sea level rise and intensifying storms.

Planners statewide are collaborating with climate change experts to arrive at new data on which to base building policies that more accurately reflect the risks associated with the state’s changing weather patterns. But so far Kauai County’s policies do not take into account the alarming new numbers.

Some of the homes on Weke Road were raised prior to 2005, when the county adopted a stricter shoreline ordinance that requires structures to be set back 60 feet from the highest wash of the waves. (The state’s setback mandate is 40 feet). New erosion data will also come into play as homeowners make bids to rebuild in an at-risk corner of the floodplain abutting the ocean and a river prone to flooding.

Only time will tell if these stricter rules will provide homeowners with adequate protection from future environmental disasters.

“Indeed, there’s a desire to push back farther away from these inundation zones,” Hull said. “But how far we can push legally under the United States Constitution will always be at the forefront of the discussion. There’s a constitutional right to build on the property you own.”

Uncertain Future on Weke Road

Last April, a national record-setting storm dumped 49.7 inches of rain on some parts of Kauai in 24 hours. The extraordinary rainfall has left behind damaged homes, cost people jobs and temporarily crippled the local tourism industry.

The lone road to the farthest reaches of Kauai’s North Shore is not expected to reopen to normal vehicular traffic between Waikoko and Wainiha for several more months. Construction crews are working on a short-term fix by stabilizing landslides and combatting erosion. In the long-term, state transportation officials say large portions of Kuhio Highway will need to be rerouted away from areas expected to be hardest hit by the rising sea level due to climate change.

While many of the most alarming scars of the storm remain out-of-bounds to the public due to the extended road closure, the flood-torn homes on Weke Road, looking like the casualty of a wrecking ball, are in view of surfers on waves and tourists on beach towels.

The before pictures of a portion of Hanalei Bay were taken by Google’s GeoEye-1 satellite a week before the record flooding started on April 14, and the after pictures were taken a few days later on April 18.

Some of the homes are in a foot of water. Small fish swim in the pools, making a home where residents have fled due to battered foundations, splintered walls and caved-in roofs.

The crooked homes are magnets for gawking tourists with camera phones. So are the giant holes in the earth carved by fast-moving floodwaters. But locals have grown accustomed to the contrast of this temporary blight against a backdrop of world-class waves and waterfall-strewn mountains.

Jogging with a surfboard tucked under his arm on the strip of sand that separates the battered homes from the howling surf, 35-year island resident Jeff Weiss surveyed the dilapidated buildings and declared: “If there was ever a time to make a change, it’s now.”

Home propped up with large I beans along Weke Road homes damaged Kauai Flooding 2018.

Scientists say the historic floodplain is not a safe bet for rebuilding multimillion-dollar homes.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If nothing else, Weiss, a Kauai County fire captain, said the drastic change in precipitation on Kauai last year alone should prompt a new way of assessing climate risk.

“I guess it’s between those people and their bank accounts if they want to build back up again — as long as they don’t go getting insurance that will be knocking on the door of the taxpayers later on to go and bail them out,” Weiss said.

“It’s a hard conversation,” he added. “But now’s the time to make changes.”

This map shows the houses along Hanalei Bay whose owners have applied to rebuild their residences. The houses on the northwestern edge of the bay are located in a VE flood zone, which FEMA defines as “areas subject to inundation by the 1-percent-annual-chance flood event with additional hazards due to storm-induced velocity wave action.”

The Guidebook Is Broken

It’s impossible to definitively determine whether climate change contributed to the rain storm that deluged Hanalei town.

But it’s apparent to scientists that the continued use of historical climate information as the basis for determining flood risk and building requirements is a broken method, said Thomas Giambelluca, a professor of geography and environment at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

“Indeed, there’s a desire to push back farther away from these inundation zones…(But) there’s a constitutional right to build on the property you own.” — Kauai County Planning Director Kaaina Hull

“There’s an underlying assumption that the past provides a good guide for the future, and this assumption has been used for a century or longer to design and permit the building of bridges and culverts and buildings that are affected by water flows,” Giambelluca said. “The consensus among scientists is that that assumption is dead. It’s no longer valid to use the past as a guide for the future.”

“At the very least,” he said, “we need to build in a larger margin of error, which could mean building stronger structures or restricting development in larger areas within a floodplain so we have more of a buffer.”

Home along Weke Road damaged from last year's flood sit along Hanalei Bay.

A home along Hanalei Bay’s shoreline that was pushed off its stilts by floodwaters.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii has conducted extensive research that defines how we can expect our islands to change in the coming years.

Here’s the basics: Sea levels had been expected to rise up to 3.2 feet globally by 2100, but the latest projections say this could happen as soon as 2060. In Hawaii, the value of imperiled land and infrastructure expected to be inundated is $20 billion.

There is a desire within government to use the growing data around climate change and shifting weather patterns to rewrite zoning and building codes. But questions linger about which of the new numbers can be trusted to hold up in court if, for example, a homeowner sought to challenge the legal rationale behind a building permit denial.

There is hesitancy to rewrite the rules to the game even on the heels of a disaster of epic proportions, such as the April flood on Kauai.

Bradley Romine, a coastal geologist with the UH Sea Grant College Program, said building regulators will fare best by implementing new restrictions on development in anticipation of a painful loss of property due to a climate or weather event — not in reaction to it.

Romine is heading up a team that’s drafting post-disaster reconstruction guidelines for the state’s counties to follow after future destructive storms.

The study, focused mainly on sea level rise, is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Resilience Grants program and is due out in April.

“One of the main points of our guidance is to have these conversations before disaster strikes, because it’s always a frenzied and very stressful time for the homeowners and the planning and regulatory agencies in the aftermath,” Romine said. “We’re trying to help the counties develop some plans and protocols and that means there’s a need to identify where there may be some areas in our communities that may be too vulnerable to build back up again in the same way.”

Weke Road homes damaged Kauai Flooding 2018.

In Hawaii, the influence of climate change on rainfall is still being studied. Research suggests the islands could start to experience fewer but more intense storms.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Luke Evslin, a member of the Kauai County Council, said it’s a “crazy” environmental and financial risk to re-raise a structure that has just been clobbered by a natural disaster when it’s located in a vulnerable flood zone.

He noted that even if a wealthy homeowner desires to take on the risk, the taxpayer also absorbs the financial blow when federal insurance policies pitch in to fund the repair work.

“We know that this wasn’t a one-off storm,” Evslin said. “Our climate has changed, but our infrastructure hasn’t. We need to move quickly to work back some of the density on our shoreline and, for sure, when a home gets destroyed because of a storm event, we need to recognize that nature is trying to tell us something.”

Our journalism needs your help.

While asking for your support is something we don’t like to do, the simple fact is that our reporters, our journalism, and our impact rely on it. Since lifting our paywall and becoming a nonprofit in mid-2016, our local newsroom has benefitted from a stream of charitable support from people who want our type of journalism to survive. People like you who understand that our work is essential to a better-informed community. If you value the work of our journalists, show us with your tax-deductible support.

About the Author