A remote community of largely Native Hawaiian families in East Maui spent a month without phone and internet service after a powerful storm in December knocked down utility poles.

More than 80 households in the Keanae-Wailuanui area rely on Hawaiian Telcom.

Maui locator map

Although service was finally restored on Thursday, the long break in telecommunication services caused inconvenience, emotional hardship and medically challenging situations.

Residents who needed to place phone calls had to drive an hour west to Haiku or an hour east to Hana, like Anela Akuna, whose 15-year-old son suffered a severe asthma attack on New Year’s Eve.

“I wasn’t able to call 911,” Akuna said.

She put the boy in her car, turned her hazard lights on and gunned it toward Maui Memorial Hospital in Wailuku. It took her an hour and a half to arrive.

“I wasn’t stopping for no one. I said if the police want to stop and arrest me, they can meet me at the emergency room,” Akuna said.

Ed and Mahealani Wendt felt cut off for weeks after they lost internet and phone service during a storm in December. Courtesy: Mahealani Wendt

Mahealani Wendt, whose husband Ed has serious health conditions, is among those who scrambled to make urgent phone calls from a community center parking lot in Haiku to arrange doctor appointments and prescription refills. Normally, the family handles such tasks online.

She and Ed, whose birthdays are in December and January, couldn’t talk with their children and grandchildren or celebrate on those important dates with phone calls, among other things. They felt cut off and isolated from the outside world.

After the storm subsided, Wendt said she drove to Haiku and called Hawaiian Telcom’s customer service line about her lack of service but found no resolution.

Wendt, a poet, community organizer and former head of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, said on another occasion, she managed to speak to an agent located in Hawaii and that person scheduled an appointment for a repair person to come to Wendt’s house on Dec. 29. But no one showed up, Wendt said.

“We understand that this has been a very challenging time due to the considerable impact that storm had across the county,” said Ann Nishida Fry, a spokesperson for Hawaiian Telcom.

Fry said the Dec. 19 storm took down 32 telephone poles across Maui Country, including 22 in the vicinity of the Hana Highway. Since then, Hawaiian Telcom crews have been working diligently to make repairs and restore service to customers, she said.

The Keanae-Wailuanui area is remote and rugged, making it challenging to access with large trucks and equipment.

Wailuanui Village is in a remote part of Maui, making it more difficult to quickly restore service. Courtesy: Mahealani Wendt

“That was one reason that things took a little longer,” Fry said.

It took a contractor a week to remove fallen trees from downed cables so Hawaiian Telcom trucks could make it in. The tree-removal work began on Christmas Eve after telecom crews had assessed the damage starting on Dec. 21.

“Our teams worked diligently throughout the holiday season and crews also flew in from Oahu to help expedite restoration,” Fry said.

About one-third of Keanae-Wailuanui customers who lost telecom services got reconnected on or soon after Jan. 13, Fry said.

Hawaiian Telcom building on Bishop Street.
Hawaiian Telcom says about one-third of Keanae-Wailuanui customers who lost service in the Dec. 19 storm had it restored by Jan. 13. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

But as the outage wore on, several customers said they started to feel desperate.

Wendt reached out to a friend who lives in Haiku for help when her own efforts didn’t get results. Shay Chan Hodges, a grant writer and community activist, started making calls and sending out emails to elected officials, including the governor’s office and the Hawaii congressional delegation, asking them to contact Hawaiian Telcom.

Rep. Mahina Poepoe of Molokai was among the politicians who promptly responded and reached out to the company.

Mahina Poepoe
Rep. Mahina Poepoe urged Hawaiian Telcom to quickly respond to the need to restore power. 

“After that it seemed like the response went quickly,” said Poepoe, who represents House District 13.

“From what I understand, the damage was substantial. But especially in our rural communities, we really have to make sure that we try to get services to them quickly following these type of events,” Poepoe said.

Wendt said she feels the community was left in the dark and virtually neglected for a month, and that it’s telling that residents felt the need to enlist the support of elected officials to get the situation fixed.

“It’s extremely sad that we have to resort to such measures,” she said.

Pauahi Hookano of Wailuanui is a dialysis patient. She described the last month as a living nightmare.

“To be completely cut off and out of range, it was very frustrating and quite scary,” Hookano said.

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

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