A dozen landslides shut down the lone road to the farthest reaches of Kauai’s north shore in April 2018, severing the isolated communities of Wainiha and Haena from the rest of the island for months.

kauai locator badgeA record-setting rainstorm triggered the landslides, causing $180 million in damage, wrecking more than 500 homes and making it difficult, if not impossible, for thousands of people to shop for food, refill prescription medicine, attend school or get to work.

In March 2021, disaster struck again. Heavy rain set off a major landslide on the Hanalei Hill, cutting off an even larger populace from doctors, pharmacies, emergency responders, jobs, schools and other essential services.

Historically, these three communities nestled in the North Shore’s jungle have also been a magnet for devastation. The region was marred by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, Hurricane Iwa in 1982 and Hurricane Dot in 1956. A deadly 1946 tsunami and a destructive but nonlethal tsunami in 1957 clobbered the area, which is strung together by a series of narrow one-lane bridges.

Today, extreme weather is becoming more frequent as a result of a warming planet. With this in mind, Kauai County officials are preparing to build a modest but critical facility in this disaster-stricken area to serve as a localized command center to dispense emergency relief.

A Kauai resident surveys the aftermath of the severe flooding that damaged much of the community skirting Hanalei Bay in April 2018. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

The planned $2.5 million Wainiha Community Resilience Center is intended to provide year-round community services while doubling as a headquarters for disaster response during emergencies.

Funded on the heels of the historic 2018 flood by part of an approximately $100 million allocation of state tax dollars for storm recovery and future resiliency, the 2,240-square-foot building and accompanying garage would include a satellite office for the State Parks Division of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and two offices for police and firefighters.

The center would be equipped with a certified kitchen, a restroom and shower, a covered lanai for meetings and gatherings, emergency power generation, secure storage for emergency supplies and medicine, a management office and a staging space where government agencies and community groups can help administer emergency resources to residents. There would be about 16 parking spaces.

Kauai Administrative Planning Officer Alan Clinton said the goal for the relatively small facility is to try to get “the biggest bang for the buck” by including as many features as possible while balancing the concerns of nearby neighbors, who in non-emergency times don’t wish to live next to a loud and lit-up community hub.

Construction could begin as soon as mid-June.

“When we do a vulnerability analysis of what populations and communities are most likely to be disconnected from our main service providers, the Hanalei Bridge is one of our choke points that very regularly, whenever there’s a flash flood, has to be closed down,” Clinton said. “And a lot of our public safety services are sometimes stranded on the other side and unable to get into the Hanalei and Wainiha and Haena areas.”

Many of the planned facility’s components are a direct translation of the deficiencies encountered by government agencies and community groups after the 2018 flood, when emergency services were administered to a community reeling from property loss from a makeshift patchwork of locations.

For example, Camp Naue, a YMCA facility, served as a staging area and helicopter landing pad crucial to bringing in food, medication and emergency responders, as well as evacuating trapped tourists.

The Hanalei Colony Resort became the base for government agency operations, as well as an improvised community dining hall, medical center and school.

“Some of those locations weren’t fully suited to accommodate some of the challenges that we ran into and that informed the plan for the center,” Clinton said.

Haena flood victims wait for rescue boats at Tunnels Beach after heavy rains dismantled the only route in and out of the community in April 2018. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

It’s unclear how the facility would be used during non-emergency situations.

The county is working with community groups to develop a plan for what daily operations might look like during periods of normalcy. During non-emergency times the facility is expected to be managed by a community group, and at least one organization has submitted a formal letter of interest to the county.

There’s talk of growing a community garden. The certified kitchen might become available for events or use by commercial businesses. Or the facility could become some sort of training center or a place for residents to access the internet.

Preliminary designs for the center were unveiled at a community meeting in February 2020. Public feedback guided modifications and improvements for the final project plan, which has a strong emphasis on burial mitigation during the construction phase.

“I think that we need to be sure to leave room for creative adjustments as we start to use this space, to not concrete ourselves into very specific door signs of what this is for and that’s for,” said Makaala Kaaumoana, executive director of the nonprofit Hanalei Watershed Hui, at a virtual public meeting about the project this week. “We won’t really know all that until it gets used.”

The center is planned for a nearly three-acre property that historically was the site of the old Haena School. More recently, state officials considered turning it into a base yard.

In 2018, the plot became a temporary waste transfer station to accommodate the absence of trash disposal services when the communities of Wainiha and Haena were severed from the rest of the island. Recent soil testing found all samples within or below environmental standards set by the Hawaii Department of Health, according to Clinton.

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