Month after month, the Palolo Neighborhood Board hears from community residents whose homes are literally slipping down the hillside.
They come to the meetings angry, fearful and distressed, looking for updates on infrastructure plans that will help hold the soil in place. They want answers from city officials about what more can be done to help them.
Sometimes they leave the meetings more indignant at what they see as delays and obfuscation by city officials as the damage grows worse on the streets where they live.
“We get no answers and we keep running in circles, trying to find any glimmer of hope in saving our homes, our lifetime investments,” Laurie Chivers, who lives on landslide-prone Kuahea Street, said at a board meeting in February. “It’s a big concern every day.”
A portion of Kuahea Street in Palolo Valley has been closed off because of soil erosion.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Now the neighborhood board has decided to take a more active role in mediating on behalf of the affected homeowners. Recently, the board voted unanimously to create a special committee of four board members who will start investigating the situation and try to find some ways to help.
“I hope we can find a resolution for people in the neighborhood whose homes are falling down,” Jessica Welch, who volunteered to serve on the committee, said after the meeting. “They are very frustrated.”
The scenic upper Palolo Valley is a neighborhood of mostly modest single-family homes originally marketed to the families of young military veterans after World War II. A deep canyon with a verdant hillside and craggy cliffs above, it is unstable and has always been prone to landslides. For the past 70 years, some residents have faced the terrifying revelation that their homes could become uninhabitable.
Now more houses are at risk.
Some believe that leaking underground water pipes have exacerbated the problems but city officials say the primary issue is that the earth is moving. Landslides are a perennial problem in Hawaii.
The troubled neighborhood is located where Waiomao Road and Kuahea Street come together, about a mile and a half uphill of Kaimuki’s Waialae Avenue. Kuahea Street has grown steeper and the city has closed off part of the road. Water oozes up onto the pavement of the street, even on a cloudless day. Rainy days bring the more immediate risk of homes crashing down onto others below them.
The pavement on the road is cracked and bulging. Palolo resident Ashley Noji said older people have tripped and hurt themselves on the uneven surface and that some of the oldest residents now climb up and down on their hands and knees to keep from falling.
The earth in the area looks strange, almost as if the soil had grown tumors. A bump, known also as “the hump,” has developed on Waiomao Road. It looks like a huge cyst growing out of the middle of the roadway.
The neighborhood is a mix of private homes, public property and city infrastructure, which put people at odds as they try to sort out the issues. The city has acquired three damaged homes and intends to buy more. Some houses are unsalvageable. The effort to stabilize the area is expected to cost more than $20 million. It’s unclear whether it is fixable.
The pavement is crumbling at Kuahea Street as earth movement places pressure on infrastructure.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Palolo resident Jim Harstead, who has lived on Kuahea Street since 1974, knew there were landslide issues near his house when he bought it, but it cost about 30% less than comparable homes at the time. He thought the problems were limited to one side of Kuahea, so he built a larger home on the site, but then the landslides shifted suddenly to another part of the street. His home sits in the middle of the two landslide-prone areas.
He said the city doesn’t seem to have done enough to solve the problems over the years.
“We’ve gotten official notices,” he said. “They are always promising a project: ʻFrom January to April you will suffer an inconvenience.’ But little gets done.”
He was glad to know the board was taking up the cause.
“It’s probably a good idea,” he said. “Somebody should be talking about it and looking into it.”
City officials say they are taking the issue seriously.
“Nobody is turning their back on Kuahea or Waiomao,” said Ross Sasamura, director and chief engineer of the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance, at Wednesday’s board meeting. He said the problem goes back seven decades, perhaps worsened by recent weather.
“If it was easy to deal with, it would have been dealt with decades ago,” he said. “Attention is being put to it, funds are being put to it.”
The new committee is chaired by Shane Albritton, who teaches social studies at a charter school in Kaimuki. The other members are Earl Shiraki, a retired electrical inspector, Rusti Onishi, a building contractor and Welch, executive director of the Manoa Heritage Center.
One of the group’s first goals, according to Albritton, will be to try to help an elderly couple who were issued a city citation for a rock wall on their property that has become unstable because the soil is shifting. People knew the couple, who are in their 90s, and knew they couldn’t afford to fix the wall.
“We’ll work with elected officials to try to suspend any enforcement action until the mitigation is put into place,” he said.
Debris has piled up along Waiomao Road after some structures have been demolished as the ground beneath them continues to shift.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Board Chairman Randolph Hack hopes they might be able to locate a pro-bono attorney to help homeowners who can’t afford to make repairs.
The original idea for creating the special committee came from state Sen. Les Ihara.
“You folks need to get your act together and be of one mind,” he told them in July. He suggested they gather the facts, report back to the board on what was happening and then develop a comprehensive set of actions.
“It takes work, somebody will have to take hours and hours, and under the auspices of the board, you could get some traction,” he said.
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Kirstin Downey was a reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat. A former Washington Post reporter and author of several books, she splits her time between Hawaii and Washington, D.C. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org