HANALEI, Kauai — Just when the Hawaii Department of Transportation was preparing to reopen Kuhio Highway through the area devastated by storms in April 2018, a major new roadway problem surfaced Thursday when the DOT announced that one lane of the highway south of Hanalei will be shut down for the next four or five months.

The problem came to light late last week when rockslides sent debris onto the roadway and state crews responded to what appeared at first to be a routine clean-up operation. But when it became clear that the hillside was in imminent danger of collapse, the DOT closed the Lihue-bound lane of the highway.

The situation created long backups in each direction, with gridlock in Hanalei and as far southeast as Princeville. Thursday’s announcement said crews will now have to install soil nails reinforced with concrete and a mesh covering on an area of hillside several hundred yards long immediately south of the Hanalei Bridge.

Vehicle access to and from Hanalei will be controlled by flagger crews. The terse statement announcing the lane closure concluded: “The public is asked to avoid the area if possible and to treat the traffic control personnel with courtesy.”

The development came just as DOT was preparing for the imminent reopening of the highway from Hanalei to Haena State Park, which has been closed to everyone except residents and people with provable need to travel since last May.

Kauai Flood Kuhio Highway checkpoint.
The Kuhio Highway was already closed just west of Hanalei due to damage from the flooding in April 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“This is insane,” said Joel Guy, president of the Hanalei-Haena Community Association and the organizer of a shuttle system that has not yet launched but will take people from Princeville to Kee Beach, through Hanalei and other points in Wainiha and Haena. “This touches everyone, from the kids waiting for hours trying to get to school to the visitors trying to get out here and everything in between. It is a disaster for business owners.”

“There is going to have to be an alternate means of access,” Guy said, possibly even a ferry across the Hanalei River. “On the one hand, we have an isolated, fragile island that’s literally falling apart and a location so beautiful and attractive that the whole world wants to come here.”

Several weeks ago, DOT announced that the closed stretch of highway would reopen on or about May 1, which provoked a storm of protest of its own because the state Parks Department has been renovating Haena State Park in preparation for reopening of the Kee Beach area but has not yet finished the work.

Had the scheduled been followed, traffic would have had no ready destination, or even easy access to a turnaround.

Sharp new access restrictions are planned for the park, with the number of visitors cut by more than half. A shuttle system, new parking restrictions and other measures are set to be implemented when the park reopens in early June.

After a contentious community meeting, DOT reversed course and delayed reopening of the highway until May 20.

It remains to be seen what the new closure of the Lihue-bound lane near Hanalei will do to the schedule for the rest of the highway.

Elsa Almaraz, a resident of Wainiha along the long-closed stretch of highway, said the latest news about the lane closure on another stretch was maddening.

“We’re all pulling our hair out,” Almaraz said.

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