In Our Voices for March 16, 2006

Many national and state newscasts said Tuesday’s flooding in Kilauea was Kaua’i’s worst natural disaster since Hurricane ‘Iniki in 1992.

They are wrong.

Measured in terms of loss of life, ‘Iniki does not compare.

Not since the tsunami in the middle of the last century has Kaua’i experienced the sudden loss of life that occurred early Tuesday morning when millions of gallons of water was instantly released by the breach and took aim at defenseless homes near Kilauea.

The people sleeping in those homes never knew what hit them.

Then there is the question as to whether Tuesday’s dam breach was a “natural” disaster at all. Does a breach qualify as an act of God?

There is no doubt the merciless rains and runoff filled the reservoir to its maximum capacity. But what of the human contributions to the tragedy?

While there was much pain and suffering after both Hurricane ‘Iwa in 1982 and ‘Iniki in 1992, there was little, if any, loss of life. Yet the community members now are responding in much the same manner they did during those natural disasters.

On both sides of the previously-closed section of Kuhio Highway near Kilauea, this tragedy brought members of the Kaua’i community together in ways nothing short of disaster can.

We can only imagine the agony of friends and relatives of those missing, and what they go through as the search for survivors turns to a recovery of bodies.

Images from the disaster area graphically illustrate the forces involved when the flash flood went through the area. It would be a miracle to survive those forces.

Our hearts go out to the friends and family of the seven missing individuals: Daniel Arroyo, Alan Dingwall, Aurora Fehring, Rowan Fehring-Dingwall, Christina Macnees, Timothy Noonan, and Wayne Rotstein.

Members of work crews labored along Kuhio Highway under the uncertain threat of another dam breach, that of Morita Reservoir, to get the island’s major north-south thoroughfare open. They managed to open one lane of the highway shortly after 4 p.m. yesterday.

Stories came in from everywhere of acts of heroism, kindness, and extreme sadness.

Almost immediately, a fund was set up for people to donate to the victims of the tragedy. Calls and e-mails have been flooding in to the offices of The Garden Island wanting to know where to donate, and wishing all of us well.

Kaua’i has quite a few fans.

The days that lie ahead will be troubling, as anger began to surface at yesterday’s town-hall meeting in Kilauea held by Gov. Linda Lingle. Whereas with a natural disaster, people can accept the randomness of the event and dismiss the blame, with Tuesday’s event there were manmade circumstances tied in with the tragedy.

The dam was old. The dam was on the property of an individual who has run into land-management problems in the past. The dam falls under the jurisdiction of both the landowner and state officials. The homes that were swept away are rumored to have been built too close to the stream bed, and without the proper permitting.

The state officials are ultimately the ones to answer for the structural integrity of the dam, even if it lies on private property, as Kaloko Reservoir does.

People now want to know why. It is the question that can only be answered after an event like this occurs.

These are all difficult issues to address, but if we as a community are going to understand them, they will need to be explored. How many similar dams rest at the heads of similar valleys like that of Wailapa? These questions need to be answered not for the purpose of placing blame, but for the purpose of avoiding a similar tragedy in the future.

It is human nature to place blame. It is a lot harder to find solutions.

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