It was Marjory Kawahara’s first time home since December 2020. The 85-year-old retired Kaiser Permanente nurse carefully walked down the steps of her house on Kuahea Street in Palolo Valley, where she’d lived for almost 60 years.

She stood on the front patio, where she and her late husband, a Korean War Army veteran and state agricultural inspector, once hosted countless family gatherings. But she didn’t want to go inside.

“I didn’t want to see what it looked like now,” Kawahara said, adding that she was concerned for her safety.

Kawahara and her daughter, Kehau Otsuka, along with five other nearby property owners, remain in legal battles with the City and County of Honolulu and the Board of Water Supply after a landslide left their homes uninhabitable.

Palolo Landslide Marjory Kawahara
Marjory Kawahara raised two children and three grandchildren in her house in Palolo Valley. Now she lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her daughter. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

“I knew we had to move because we couldn’t tell when our house would slide,” Otsuka said. “I watched everyone on my street pack up and go … mom worked her whole life for her house. It was hard finding the right place for her, something safe and somewhere she wouldn’t get depressed in.”

The residents evacuated the area one by one, between 2018 and 2020, afraid their houses may collapse or slide down a hill at any moment.

Many now juggle paying a combination of their mortgage, homeowners insurance, property tax, rent and attorney fees — including one of the Pint + Jigger owners, Dave Newman, who poured his IRA account into a four-story house up on Kuahea Place he hasn’t lived in for 18 months.

Newman, who is well over 6 feet tall, now shares a 450-square-foot studio he rents with his girlfriend. He said he had no idea about the history of the earth movement in the area when he purchased his house.

“But the city knew,” he said.

Oahu’s susceptibility to landslides is well documented and the ongoing earth movement has plagued Palolo since 1952, according to Haku Milles, deputy director of Honolulu’s Department of Design and Construction.

For over two decades, Geolabs, a geotechnical engineering firm based in Waipahu that was hired by the city, has monitored movement in the Waiomao and Kuahea area. Though data from 2015 to 2020 was withheld due to the ongoing lawsuits, several reports have shown a dramatic increase of movement and warned that the infrastructure must be maintained to ensure the land remains dry in order to prevent exacerbated movements.

Slide the red arrow to the right to see the effects of the landslide. Aerial view of Kuahea Street and Waiomao Road in July 2011, Google Earth Screenshot; Aerial view of Kuahea Street and Waiomao Road in November 2022, Nathan Eagle, Civil Beat.

The property owners say the city’s failure to maintain Kuahea Street and Kuahea Place and its water and sewer lines all exacerbated the effects of the landslide and subsequently damaged their houses, while the city has denied all substantive allegations against it.

So far, the city and state have condemned and bought over 20 properties in the Waiomao area, but continue to deny that they are liable for the Kawahara’s house and the five others nearby, stating that any damages or losses sustained were caused by the residents’ own negligence.

In hopes of one day passing the house to her two children, Kawahara said she took extra care of her home. She had it painted on a regular basis, the backyard cleaned and shrubs hauled off by yardmen twice a year. In 2016, she spent $23,000 re-roofing the house and $70,000 on micro-piling construction — four years before they moved.

Otsuka also spent about $6,000 hiring an expert to do a geoanalytical study for her mother’s house. The study found that the house would continue to creep downslope under the influence from the water main beneath Kuahea Street. Based on the study, a contractor estimated foundation repairs of almost $600,000, which they couldn’t afford to pay.

“I just want the city to take responsibility,” Otsuka, a judicial assistant for the state and a full-time caretaker for her mother, said. “I want them to settle with the remaining homes that are in litigation and let us move on with our lives … this has caused so much stress and unnecessary problems, cost so much money, for all of us.”

Currently, two trials are scheduled for next year and one in May 2024, but Kawahara and other owners are still waiting for dates to be set.

Palolo Landslide Marjory Kawahara and Kehau Otsuka
Marjory Kawahara spent 20 years paying off her mortgage for a house that has been rendered unlivable by a landslide. Kawahara and others are suing the city for damages. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Some mitigation work was done in 2017, but the contractor the city originally hired abruptly went out of business and the city sent letters saying work would start again in September 2018. In 2019, the city then implemented a two-phase and approximately $21 million project, which is anticipated to end in the first half of 2023, according to Milles.

Residents Want More Done

But the residents in the area feel that the city could have done more to save their homes.

Palolo Landslide timeline
Sources: Honolulu Department of Design and Construction, Honolulu Advertiser Archives Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

In 2016, water underneath Kuahea Street caused a sinkhole to form, according to Joshua Barnes and Julie Iezzi, whose property sat in between the sinkhole and the Kawahara’s house. Barnes and Iezzi are among many who believe the sinkhole and various water and sewer line breaks which occurred in the following years exacerbated the earth’s movement, and are in litigation.

Barnes and Iezzi, who are both chairs of departments at the University of Hawaii Manoa, lived in their home for two decades without any issues. They marked the growth of their three children on their door jamb, enjoyed years of fruits from their trees, buried their beloved family pets on the property and spent Iezzi’s $130,000 inheritance on remodeling their basement.

“I thought we were going to retire there … we chose things that we wanted to live with forever. It was all yellow cedar that would be resistant to termites,” Iezzi said, not knowing that they would be moving out in a few years.

In 2017, Barnes said the walls and ceiling of their house began to crack open. Rats came and went as they pleased.

“The cracks just kept widening,” Iezzi said. “The land was twisting and pulling. That whole section of the floor was warped … when we finally moved, there was a 9-inch difference in the floor level.”

Palolo Landslide
Joshua Barnes and Julie Iezzi’s house in Palolo, which the city determined was not necessary to purchase to remediate the effects of the landslide. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Former Honolulu City Council member Ann Kobayashi, who represented District 5, repeatedly advocated for residents when she represented Palolo by introducing resolutions 19-49 and 20-261 and wrote several letters asking for help, said the city should offer fair compensation.

“I think government has the responsibility to take care of people if we’ve allowed them to have a permit to build and live there,” she told Hawaii News Now in 2019.

Despite numerous invitations, Iezzi said the city never came to their property or the Kawahara’s property next door when it was determining the length and the extent of the landslide.

Milles said the city is generally restricted to visual observation to monitor earth movement from city properties, and will only obtain access to private properties if it is deemed necessary and beneficial. The city’s engineering consultants determined the Kawahara and the Barnes and Iezzi properties were not within the landslide zone and Milles said they did not require entry to the properties to make these observations.

“The only thing the city has done is send us our property tax bill,” Barnes said.

Barnes and Iezzi pay over $900 every six months. Kawahara and her daughter pay over $2,000 a year and almost $1,000 for homeowners insurance for the house they can’t live in.

Palolo broken sewer line
The broken sewer line that was discovered after a resident personally paid for reconnaissance work to be done. Courtesy: Cory Kot

6 Feet Of Missing Sewer Line

Although the city started to condemn properties damaged by severe erosion in February 2019, the city later notified residents in the area that because the damage was so extreme Kuahea Place — a road that splits off from Kuahea Street — no longer qualified for surface maintenance by the city.

From February 2019 to March 2020, Otsuka logged 31 water main breaks near her home.

The residents in the area grew weary of port-a-potties, and Devon Geis of Kuahea Place took matters into her own hands.

Geis paid for reconnaissance work to be done on a broken sewer line under her street, which led to the discovery that 6 feet of the sewer line was missing.

Afterward, the city asked residents for consent for entry and workers showed up in white hazmat suits to perform sewer-related work within Kuahea Place toward the end of 2019, when a makeshift ramp was installed on Kuahea Place because residents were struggling to get to their houses.

The dean of Outreach College at UH, Bill Chismar, 68, and his wife have lived in their home for almost three decades, and are among those who still live up on Kuahea Place.

The Chismars, and their neighbors the Nojis — who have two children both under 3 years old — all resort to lugging their groceries and other bulky belongings up the steep ramp, about 400 feet away from their cars. Most park in front of their former neighbors’ empty houses on Kuahea Street below, or in the driveways that are still intact.

Palolo Landslide
Keoki Noji, one of the residents who live up Kuahea Place, carries two pizzas, various groceries and his surfboard up the ramp and back to his house. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Though the city recognizes that the ongoing natural earth movement has affected various infrastructure that include sewer facilities in this particular area, Milles said that the department has maintained city-owned sewer facilities and has performed all necessary repairs.

“The DDC is unaware of the totality of the damages to private and personal property as a result of earth movements,” Milles said. “The city initiated the stabilization project to protect city infrastructure … area residents and private property owners were advised to take precautionary measures to protect themselves.”

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