In the dark, John Dobovan startled awake, gasping for air. The power had gone off, halting the oxygen flowing through the breathing machine he needs to treat his sleep apnea.

Maui County locator map

It was around 3 a.m., and Dobovan knew he now had much more to worry about than just himself. He runs Hawaii’s first commercial rainbow trout farm, where 11,000 fish relied on electricity to circulate air and water in their tanks, 24/7. Whenever the power goes out, Dobovan has anywhere from 20 to 48 minutes, depending on how full the tanks are, to get air circulating again before fish start dying.

Living in a rural part of Kula, Dobovan knew power outages would be a part of life. He spent the last two years applying for county grant funding to buy a massive $20,000 generator that can power the whole farm during emergencies. But by the time he received the grant money a few months ago, inflation had driven prices up, so he needed to raise more money to cover installation costs.

John Dobovan estimates that Kulahaven Farms lost at least 4,000 trout during the Aug. 23 power outage, threatening to wipe out his business. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

On the morning of Aug. 23, that meant the farmer had to turn once again to his small gas-powered generator. Except it wouldn’t turn on.

“This was my worst nightmare that this would happen,” Dobovan said. “And now it has come true.”

The clock was ticking. But by the time he got the generator running an hour and a half later, it was too late for at least 4,000 trout. Those fish were supposed to supply roughly half of the farm’s income over the next year.

Dobovan was among 65,000 Hawaiian Electric customers on Maui who lost power that day during the island’s most widespread electrical outage in five years. The outage struck 94% of the company’s customers on Maui, leaving thousands of families and businesses without electricity for most of the morning.

In a good month, Kulahaven Farms used to be able to produce 1,000 pounds of rainbow trout. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Fourteen public schools closed, forcing parents to scramble to find child care. The County of Maui, meanwhile, urged residents to conserve water because the water system’s pumps rely on electricity. Police officers were deployed to intersections where traffic lights were down, and the county’s DMV paused services because of disruptions to phone and internet service.

A week later, Hawaiian Electric is still investigating what caused the nearly island-wide outage and can’t yet say what caused it. The last time there was an outage of this scale, in 2017, a lightning storm was the culprit.

What Hawaiian Electric can say for now is that a “high-voltage short circuit” at its Ma‘alaea substation “triggered generating units to trip offline.” Officials also know the outage wasn’t related to the age of Maui’s power plant, which is on the same property but different from the substation.

“Since we’re still assessing the cause, we’re not able to confirm if weather was a factor or compare it to similar causes of past outages,” said Shayna Decker, a spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric.

Maui residents are used to power outages. High winds and storms often send trees crashing onto power lines. But there wasn’t any extreme weather last Tuesday, spurring some residents to question the reliability of Maui’s electrical grid.

John Dobovan looks into an empty tank that was once filled with around 1,000 trout. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

“We were a little caught off guard — actually very caught off guard,” said Pamela Tumpap, president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce. “And what is challenging is that there’s no real system for tracking the impact on businesses affected, and so we really aren’t going to know … the dollars lost.”

Unlike whenever there are tropical storm or hurricane warnings, Maui residents weren’t expecting last week’s lengthy outage, Tumpap said. Managers of businesses big and small suddenly found themselves scrambling to shift employees around with parents stuck at home, caring for their children. Some businesses that rely on refrigerators lost product.

Kulahaven Farms lost fish ranging from a couple inches long to hundreds ready to harvest for sale. Courtesy: John Dobovan

Workers in the service industry had to cancel morning appointments. And even businesses with backup generators and solar panels with batteries to keep them going still felt the effects because all their customers were affected too.

“The big question is: What is happening now so that we know … that this is being worked on so it’s not going to happen again?” Tumpap said.

Residents who experienced losses during the outage can file claims with Hawaiian Electric. As of Wednesday, the electric company received 18 claims, one of which was from Dobovan, who worried that the outage could mean the end of Kulahaven Farms.

“We were so busy pulling out dead fish that we didn’t have enough time to count them,” Dobovan said.

Farming is a tough business, and Dobovan knew that it wouldn’t be easy when he set out in 2016 to start Hawaii’s first rainbow trout aquaponic farm, which uses the nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks to grow organic watercress. He had spent years experimenting and found they paired well. At the same time, he knew there wasn’t any trout — and not close to enough watercress — being grown in Hawaii.

John Dobovan started Kulahaven Farms as an experimental project in May 2016. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Another part of his vision: He wanted to create an aquaponic training ground where he could coach up-and-coming farmers and guide them as they launched their own operations. He started with an “experiment” of 30 fish, and after six years and more than $1 million in investment, Kulahaven Farms was producing 1,000 pounds of trout and 2,000 pounds of watercress during good months — until last week’s disaster.

It takes 11 months to grow a trout from an egg until the fish is ready to harvest, which means it’ll take at least until next July for Dobovan to recover the fish he lost. And without so many fish, the watercress crop is also already taking a hit. He expects he will have to cancel thousands of dollars worth of orders to local stores.

Kulahaven Farms lost at least 6,000 gallons of nutrient-filled water that feeds its beds of watercress because of the Aug. 23 power outage. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

In total, he estimates the farm lost at least $60,000. What makes everything even more difficult, Dobovan said, is the farm was already struggling to stay financially afloat. In the early part of the pandemic, when everything shut down, Dobovan lost half his business when restaurants stopped putting in orders. Then the storm of December 2021 sent water flooding through the fish hatchery; he lost fish then, too.

He was hoping that before another disaster struck, he would be able to rely on the new generator he bought with the county grant funding. But last week’s outage came just as he was in the middle of raising money to install it.

“We went through a bunch of power outages, but this one really got us,” Dobovan said. “Now we’re scrambling, just figuring out how we’re going to survive.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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