Wainiha Community Resilience Center: A Vision to Help the Isolated North Shore of Kauaʻi Prepare for Disaster Events

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In April 2018, a series of thunderstorms produced record-breaking rainfall on Kauaʻi. Between April 14 and 15, an astounding 49.69 inches of rain fell in north Kauaʻi – among some of the heaviest rainfall ever recorded worldwide in a 24-hour period. It caused catastrophic flash flooding and landslides. More than 500 homes were destroyed or damaged, as were roads and several bridges. Overall damage was estimated at $125 million. For a year, regular traffic to Wainiha and Hāʻena was limited due to ongoing road repairs.

Record-breaking rainstorms battered the North Shore of Kauaʻi in April 2018. The torrential downpour was Kauaʻi’s worst storm since Hurricane ʻIniki in 1992 and triggered severe flooding and more than a dozen landslides, shutting down the highway and isolating the communities of Hāʻena and Wainiha.

Though residents were experienced in responding to emergencies, the scale of those recent events underscored the need for a permanent place to gather and organize. That place, the Wainiha Community Resilience Center, is slated for construction this summer.

“This isolated area is accessible by seven single-lane bridges and is extremely vulnerable to a number of environmental hazards,” said Caren Diamond, executive director of Mālama Kuaʻāina, a nonprofit organization focused on the preservation and protection of public trust resources and the natural environment of Kauaʻi.

“Having this space is an opportunity for the community to be more prepared and resilient when faced with disaster events. As there are presently no emergency services located in this area, the community center will be incredibly useful during emergencies.”

The 2018 storm events generated numerous conversations about access to emergency services and resources, according to Alan Clinton, project manager with the County of Kauaʻi Planning Department.

“As the community worked together in assisting each other, they called for a shared space to gather,” he said. “These conversations, in addition to community resiliency planning efforts, were the prime contributions to the first design of the facility that was presented to the community in 2020.”

The initial design for the facility was shared with the Hanalei to Hāʻena Community Association and other residents in late 2019, Clinton noted. The designs were then shared at a community open house in early 2020. The project team made adjustments to the design based on a number of community concerns related to burial mitigation considerations and wastewater treatment. Clinton said the concerns were addressed via the inclusion of a UV aerobic septic system, including mounded leach fields, and the reduction of the height of the facility.

Artist's rendering of the planned Wainiha Community Resilience Center
Artist’s rendering of the planned Wainiha Community Resilience Center. Construction is slated to begin this summer. – Photos: Courtesy

The Wainiha Community Resilience Center is intended to provide emergency response and recovery services during emergency periods and to function as a community center for structured events and operations during the rest of the year, according to county officials.

It is not and will not function as a certified emergency shelter. The center’s tenants will include State Parks, County of Kauaʻi Fire, County of Kauaʻi Police, and a community organization.

Makaʻala Kaʻaumoana, executive director of the Hanalei Watershed Hui, said the center is not replacing the community, but rather enhancing the wealth of knowledge and experience that has long existed. “The communities in this place, in Hāʻena and Wainiha, are resilient for a reason. They know their place,” said Kaʻaumoana.

“They’re not resilient by education or training or anything like that. They’re resilient because they know their place. They know which rock is going to come down. They know which mountain is going to slide. They know which road is going to flood. To try and do this kind of work, or to respond to those kinds of incidents as someone from the outside, would be a waste of time.”

Kaʻaumoana’s group developed the Hanalei to Hāʻena Community Disaster Resilience Plan, which helped identify gaps in preparedness, risks and vulnerabilities, resources, knowledge and visions for improving resilience.

The $2.5 million project is funded by State of Hawaiʻi monies tied to the 2018 flooding events in Kauaʻi. The construction of the center is slated to begin this summer and is anticipated to take just under 11 months to complete. The project team is currently finalizing the site and grading plan with the County of Kauaʻi Public Works. The County of Kauaʻi will initially assume costs for regular facility use and operations. They said future financial responsibilities, and the long-term management of the center will be determined in conversation with the communities themselves.

Kaʻaumoana said the creation of the center is a good example of how community and government can work successfully together. She pointed out that county staff and the Hāʻena community have built a foundation of trust after working closely together in the aftermath of the devastating storms.

“With the 2018 flood, the county embedded staff in Hāʻena because access was very limited and they learned what that community was really like, on a day-to-day, night-to-night basis living in the community and working with the community,” she said. “Those lessons were golden.”