A month after historic flooding devastated Kauaʻi’s north shore, access remains severely limited; flood damaged items are piling up on the side of the road; and recovery efforts are largely led by ʻohana in Hāʻena, Wainiha and Hanalei who are helping the community recover as they wait for the government to step in with more assistance.
A torrential downpour in late April was Kauaʻi’s worst since Hurricane Iniki in 1992, and also flooded Waimānalo and Hawaiʻi Kai on Oʻahu. The catastrophic flooding this year likely set a record for rainfall, with 28 inches of rain falling over a 24-hour period. In the end, the unrelenting deluge washed out roads, forced evacuations, submerged vehicles and destroyed homes. A month later, most of the island is back to normal but some homeowners and renters in the northernmost part of the pae ʻāina remain displaced and local residents can only drive in and out of the area at certain times of day. Garbage pickup has been slow to resume, and huge piles on the side of the road speak to the tremendous amount of property damage.
“Wainiha” means raging waters, but resident Paʻula Chandler said she’d never experienced anything like the intense April rains. The torrential downpour flooded her property almost instantly, and then surging water “just kept coming and coming and coming.” The terrifying experience kept her up all night, and she said all she could do was surrender.
When the rains finally stopped, Chandler discovered that water rushing through a culvert that emptied onto her property had blown out a section of her driveway and carved a ravine in her yard, The storm also forced pōhaku through the culvert, so a new stream flows over a bed lined with dozens of small boulders and hundreds of rocks, some larger than basketballs.
The highway suffered such extensive damage that it took six days for members of Hui Makaʻāinana o Makana to get heavy equipment through to the worst-hit areas. Hui members steward the first officially designated community-based subsistence fishing area (CBFSA) in Hāʻena, and have expertise in resource management. The hui has put its work on hold to assist in recovery efforts, clearing rockslides that blocked roadways, pulling some 20 vehicles from Hanalei River and taking chainsaws to fallen trees. “We did all the rough stuff and opened up the road pretty wide,” said Mike Olanolan.
However, while community members are doing the bulk of the work as they wait for government resources, plans to compensate the volunteers have fallen through – despite the fact that they’re already doing the work and shouldering the cost of equipment. Demonstrated skill doesn’t carry as much weight as a contractor’s license, they’ve been told. Dr. Mehana Vaughan of Kalihiwai compares the current situation to old-time Kauaʻi when “each community had to take care of themselves.”
Two sagging beachfront homes near Hanalei Pier demonstrate the extent of the destruction. Water rushing beneath the houses wrecked their foundations, causing the structures to buckle. The flooding was so severe that even homes on stilts suffered flood damage, signaling the need to elevate all homes that need to be rebuilt. It’s expensive proposition and one that doesn’t address current needs, particularly for renters who have to find new shelter so their landlords can fix the water damage. To compound matters, the state says half the homes are uninsured.
Even now, people are sleeping in cars and tents, even those whose homes survived the storm. In some areas, thundering waterfalls ripped through the highway. Extensive roadwork keeps the roads closed except for few times a day when one lane is opened to let residents through. Some people who work outside the community get off too late for the last road opening, and have to wait until morning to line up with other drivers trying to get home.
North Kauaʻi has a significant Hawaiian population, representing about 30 percent of residents. Office of Hawaiian Affairs beneficiaries representing nonprofit organizations met with government officials and an OHA delegation to talk about recovery efforts in May. Community members have come together to address the crisis and Mark Zuckerberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jack Johnson and others have pledged significant monetary donations but it’s not known whether the people on the ground have the capacity and skill sets to perform the necessary labor. In addition, most residents are volunteers and can’t stay out of work indefinitely.
Impacted residents feel like they’ve been forgotten; some communities weren’t even assessed and by mid-May hadn’t yet been targeted in outreach efforts. George Costa, representing the county, said resources were sent in immediately after the storm. “From what I understand, we’re kind of back to normal. I don’t know who’s still there to help.” A week later, however, Gov. David Ige and Kauaʻi Mayor Bernard Carvalho estimated they’d need an initial $31.2 million for repairs to roads, bridges and parks, and signed an agreement to release $25 million immediately. FEMA had earlier denied a request for disaster aid, saying 117 impacted households fell short of the threshhold for assistance.
It’s unknown how many people still need help. About 100 people reported damage immediately after the flooding but no follow-up has been conducted to see if they’re still displaced, or if others have discovered they need assistance after all. Businesses have also been affected, leaving some farmers and ranchers coping with heavy crop and livestock losses.
Moving forward, some community members say they want to rebuild to better weather another flooding event like this. There is an opportunity, but residents need organizations to partner with and provide more direction. “No one is out there with a strategic plan saying ʻThis is what needs to be done,’” said Mina Morita, board president of the nonprofit Hale Halawai, which runs a donation center in Hanalei and provides other support to flood victims. Referring to the community at large, she said, “These guys are going full blast trying to get things done as soon as possible but the funding isn’t there. We don’t want to lose the momentum and need to find a way to transition them and point them in a direction that is more long-term.”