Photo: Wainiha
Climate change is increasing stress on public infrastructure. – Photos: Courtesy

WAINIHA — Anticipation filled the air at a nearly vacant Opekapeka Grill days before the reopening of Kūhiō Highway.

A handful of patrons were scattered throughout the Wainiha restaurant. One or two families filtered in and out, waiting for a craft show to begin next door on the Hanalei Colony Resort lawn. A neighborhood dog wandered through.

Conversation percolated over the coffee and eggs; neighbors reminiscing about the past year as “convoy convicts”, living beyond the roadblock in Wainiha. Since April 2018, those area residents have been going through the daily convoy of cars to get to Hanalei and the rest of the island.

To stand on any ‘āina in Hawai‘i is a privilege, and we all have kuleana.”

Lahela Chandler Correa, Wainiha

“I’m an involved parent and I’ve missed a whole year of my kids’ school,” said Missy Headstrom. “I guess it went well, my kids said it went well.”

Other residents tell stories of being stuck in Hanalei for hours waiting for the convoy, hungry and not wanting to spend the money on quick food when they’ve got dinner waiting for them in Wainiha. Some have been stuck overnight.

At a local preschool, Headstrom says even the kids are feeling the stress — they’ve invented a game called “Convoy” that is something akin to Ring Around the Rosie.

“They pick someone and while they run they yell, ‘hurry up! The conoy’s coming! We’re going to be late!’”, Headstrom said. “Even the children have been feeling the stress.”

Though the year has been difficult, residents said it’s also been bliss.

Photo: Elsa Almaraz, Missy Hedstrom and Uma
Elsa Almaraz, Missy Hedstrom and Uma

“We’re taking advantage of our last days alone in paradise,” said Elsa Flores Almaraz, a 40-year Wainiha resident who was at the restaurant getting breakfast before a swim at Lumahai Beach.

She looked over the ocean outside and told stories about the days after the flood and about a community that came together to help themselves.

“We really were the first responders out here when the landslides happened, especially closer to Wainiha,” Almaraz said. “They couldn’t get over here; they had to by helicopter boat.”

April 2018 brought record-breaking rains to Kaua‘i’s North Shore, rains that triggered massive floods. Landslides blocked Kuhio Highway — the only road in or out of Wainiha.

Hā‘ena State Park parking lot and Mānoa Stream Ford were both wiped out. Houses were flooded and destroyed, and area residents were cut off from the outside world.

National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Limahuli Garden cultural and botanical preserve was hit with more than one million dollars worth of damage, though NTBG president Chipper Wichman says they didn’t lose a single plant out of their living collection.

“The water turned my place into a lake house,” Almaraz said. “My daughter and her boyfriend were here visiting and they were kayaking in my front lawn.

While the flood cut off the supply access for food and necessities, it also put a stop to the visitors and traffic trekking through to Ke‘e Beach and beyond. With little access to the outside world, the residents of Wainiha began to grow into a more tight-knit community.

Packs of kids formed, riding their bikes unfettered throughout the streets and going to the beach together. Families started connecting around the shipments of fresh fruits and vegetables from the other side of the island.

“We really got to know our neighbors,” said Almaraz. “Before, with so many people going through and vacation rentals, you never knew your neighbors.”

Hedstrom is one of those neighbors, a mother who made friends with her neighbors while seeking help for her son, who got sick from the floodwater.

She found someone who could help facilitate a faster connection to get supplies she needed, and in the meantime ran into Uma. After chatting for a few moments, they realized they lived within shouting distance.

“I can see her room from my house,” Hedstrom said from her booth at the Hanalei Colony Resort craft show, hugging Uma. “We really did form a new community out here, amazing when you know who your neighbors are.”

Food was a major gathering point, especially right after the flood when people were surviving off of their canned food and emergency stores.

Debbi Woodford said one of her most vivid memories of that time is when that first shipment of fresh food came in.

“Fresh produce! It was so great to see green food,” Woodford said. “Fresh fruits and vegetables, I’ll never forget that.”

A lot of those shipments were staged and unloaded at Opakapaka Grill and Hanalei Colony Resort, with its grassy lawns.

“It was lots of activity,” said Tommy Richards, whose wife manages Hanalei Colony Resort. “People were gathering here. It’s central.”

Opakapaka Grill served meals with the food local organizations and food banks were able to supply.

“It’s been up and down and crazy,” said Opakapaka manager Morgan Stevenson. “This (Opakaka) was a good location for everyone to come together for meetings and it turned into a cool community hangout.”

The restaurant even brought in a few pool tables, which fostered a fun, community vibe and turned out to be a big hit.

“I wish we could still have that,” Almaraz said.

Brittany Beers, barista at the coffee shop next door, spoke up from the end of the bar: “It still has the potential to be like that.”

It’s all about community mindset, she explained.

“We’ve set up a new way of life out here, we adapted,” Beers said. “It was only a year ago, so we remember what it was like, but we’ve gotten used to what it is now.”

As they looked to Hawai‘i Department of Transportation’s June 17 opening of Kūhiō Highway, Hā‘ena State Park and the hiking trails, residents said they’re not sure they’re prepared for the influx of people driving through Wainiha.

HDOT says they’re still going to be intermittently closing Kūhiō Highway for work on the three bridges leading into Wainiha. Though Limahuli Garden has created stunning landscaping to recover from the flood, and also provide lasting omiyage to the event, recovery work will continue there, too.

People in Wainiha are still rebuilding their homes.

“I still have walls I have to replace,” Richards said. “I’m headed home to do the lawn, though.”

And, as they look to the opening of the highway, area residents also say they’re not letting go of the tight-knit community they’ve created.

“This has united us. We’d never heard of the term ‘rain bomb’ before. Now, we’ve all really settled into the idea of kuleana, taking care of this land as it takes care of us,” Almaraz said. “We’re it’s protectors.”

She and a few others have been putting that message out in the form of silent protests and stand-ins at various blessings for the North Shore rebuilding.

“A few of us went out to the blessing they had for Hā‘ena, we just stood there, occupied our space to remind them that we’re still here,” Almaraz said.

For residents, the reopening of the road is a double-edged sword. It will bring an increase in traffic and visitor numbers, but also more customers for places like Opakapaka and the coffee and art house next door.

“It’s been really hard in that aspect, nobody can get out here,” Stevenson said.

As they brace for the influx, Wainiha residents ask that those driving out to see the new parking lot remember one thing — to visit with aloha aina in mind.

“It’s about being respectful,” Almaraz said. “We’ll see what happens soon.”