Reservoir must go, officials say

LIHU’E — State Department of Land and Natural Resources experts on dams have recommended a Kilauea reservoir that overflowed and sent 300 million gallons of water down Wailapa Stream, destroyed at least two homes and left two people dead and five others missing, should be drained and taken apart.

Morita Reservoir, say the experts, poses a public hazard, Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste told reporters during a meeting at the Kaua’i Police Department headquarters off Kapule Highway yesterday.

If necessary, governmental power could be used to force a private owner to close down the reservoir should its continued existence prove to be a public hazard, Baptiste said.

County officials said they do not know who the owner of the reservoir is.

In a related development, state Board of Land and Natural Resources members during an emergency meeting in Honolulu yesterday voted to authorize representatives of the state Department of the Attorney General to enter private property to inspect dams and reservoirs within Kaua’i County, which includes Ni’ihau.

Baptiste held his news conference to give an update one day after he, Gov. Linda Lingle, her top staffers and members of the media surveyed the disaster sites in two Hawaii Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters.

Lingle also assured more than 350 people at a community meeting at the Kilauea Neighborhood Center that officials in her administration, and those in Baptiste’s, will take decisive action to expedite the recovery.

Heavy rains forced the Kaloko Reservoir and Morita Reservoir to overflow early Tuesday morning, releasing more than 300 million gallons of water that smashed into Kuhio Highway, hitting tension wires 35-feet high and knocking down more than 20 power poles.

Waves of water took out forests of trees on both sides of the stream, smashed into a compound of homes on the eastern side of the stream, and swept the structures off their foundations.

Seven people were in homes that were swept away.

Two bodies, a male and female, have been found, and aerial and ground searches have been conducted to try to locate the other five people.

Authorities identified the missing as Daniel Arroyo, Alan Dingwall, Aurora Fehring, Rowan Fehring-Dingwall, Christina Macnees, Timothy Noonan and Wayne Rotstein, most of whom are residents of Wailapa Road in Kilauea.

During Thursday’s update, Ed Simeona, a task force leader for the Urban, Search and Rescue division of the state Civil Defense Office, reported that members of two teams have been conducting searches along the banks of Wailapa Stream.

The searches have been conducted in areas mauka of the highway and areas makai of the highway, Simeona said.

Each team consists of 13 or 14 individuals from the Kaua’i Fire Department, Honolulu Fire Department, American Medical Response, volunteers who work with the state Civil Defense personnel, and dogs that have been trained to find lost folks, Simeona said.

Members of one team found the body of a woman near the mouth of the Kilauea River, about three quarters of a mile from where the cluster of homes had been swept away on March 14.

The body of the man, who was in his 30s, was found about a mile and a half offshore from the Rock Quarry Beach (Kilauea Bay) in Kilauea Tuesday afternoon. He was identified yesterday as Dingwall.

The woman has also been identified, but county officials have not released her name because “we are awaiting confirmation from the family (of the two deaths),” Baptiste said.

The rescue team members scoured the stream banks again Thursday, in nasty weather conditions, but found nothing, Simeona said.

Members of one team rode aboard a helicopter to cross the Kilauea River to search areas east of the river.

“We have completely searched the area at this time, and we have some areas of interest,” Simeona said, “But no hits from the dogs, or no finds on that particular side.”

Yesterday afternoon, the team covered the mauka side of Wailapa Stream, Simeona said, and that “is the area (where) we are concentrating.”

Finding the missing persons has been a challenge, he said.

That is because the bodies may be hidden within near-mountainous stacks of trees that had been broken by the flooding.

The sniffing dogs are being used, but even they would have a hard time locating the missing persons among the debris, Simeona said.

Simeona said the stream area boasted a forest of trees and plants at one time, but most of that was swept away during the flooding.

“Rubble we are coming across, tree trunks, branches,” Simeona said. “There were a few homes that were destroyed in the catastrophic waters that cascaded down.”

In the wake of that flooding has emerged “roofs, doors, wooden planks, roof structures,” he said, including refrigerators and other debris that has “clogged” the stream bed.

Simeona also said they came across automobiles floating upside down in the stream, but getting to them has been difficult, as the vehicles were mired in the middle of debris and were not easily accessible.

Getting to the vehicles could help authorities determine whether any more people were lost in the flooding, Simeona said.

If motorists were driving eastbound or westbound on the highway when the flooding occurred, they could have been swept downstream and could be missing, Simeona said.

Getting the license-plate numbers and other identification from the vehicles, when the searches get to them in the stream, will help determine whether the flooding took other victims, Simeona said.

Authorities reopened one lane of the two-lane Kuhio Highway Wednesday afternoon because they felt the Morita Reservoir wasn’t going to breach and pose a danger to the public.

That was because a spillway or spillways were created or resurrected to relieve the pressure of water in the Morita Reservoir.

More pressure was relieved when members of a county crew mounted a gigantic pump on the lip of the reservoir to divert more water downstream.

Yesterday, Baptiste felt comfortable in declaring that both reservoirs pose no significant danger at this time.

When asked whether more governmental monitoring of the privately-owned reservoirs could have prevented the flooding, Baptiste said, “I am not an expert in that area,” and “most of the reservoirs, as we have seen them, are built very well.”

He said the reservoirs were built with a “thickness like a trapezoid, so the thickness of the bottom is very well protected.” He added the reservoirs have held together for many years.

Related to the repairs to the flood-damaged highway, located between mile markers 21 and 22 on Kuhio Highway in Kilauea, Baptiste said state Department of Transportation Highways Division engineers were on the scene yesterday to look at ways to shore up the damage.

The team members were to present a recommendation to him either last night or this morning, Baptiste said.

“Until that time, we will be keeping the road open, one lane only,” he said. “I am going to caution on the side of safety, and keep it at one lane.”

Both lanes won’t be opened up until the banks are reinforced, Baptiste added.

He also said he was heartened to hear that the anticipated backup of vehicles on the road has not materialized.

Baptiste also noted that:

  • The rising water in Waita Reservoir in Koloa poses no danger at this point. “We are cleaning out some spillways within Koloa town to prevent flooding, and the amount of water that goes through is about an inch or two above the spill-way,” he said. In the past, the water has gone “two feet above the spillway, and it was OK,” he said. To further release water, a drain pipe that is a part of the reservoir has been opened up. Water that moves through the pipe will be directed to open spaces in the Maha’ulepu area in South Kaua’i, Baptiste said;
  • Heavy rains closed Ho’onani Road in Po’ipu. The Brennecke’s Beach Broiler restaurant and Po’ipu Beach Park are located on that road. Motorists have been diverted onto ‘Oma’o Road or Lawa’i Road to reach Kaumuali’i Highway in West Kaua’i, Baptiste said;
  • Opu Road in Kalaheo was closed for a time, due to heavy rains;
  • Authorities have asked residents who live on a road by a stream fed by ‘Elua Reservoir in Kalaheo to leave their homes, due to the risks of flooding.

Some could be staying at emergency centers in the area, Baptiste said.

At the same time, officials at Alexander & Baldwin and Kauai Coffee Company, a subsidiary of A&B, have offered to put up the residents in hotels. Kauai Coffee Company officials use ‘Elua Reservoir to irrigate coffee fields that extend from Koloa to ‘Ele’ele.

Baptiste also said the incessant rain and not the flooding from reservoirs has been his greatest fear.

“My biggest fear right now is the continuation of the rains, and total saturation islandwide of all the areas,” he said. “No one has been spared.”

For safety reasons, people should drive only if they have to, because “everything is totally saturated, every drop that falls will be runoff,” Baptiste said.

Baptiste said the search efforts, the rebuilding of the roads, and steps to make the reservoir safe, could not have come off as easily so far without the help of members of state government.

“We are very grateful to the state and the rest of the government for all the resources it has made available,” Baptiste said.

In a rain-related incident, a woman was struck by a van and run over as she either stood or walked in front of the State Building on Hardy Street shortly after 10 a.m. yesterday.

The woman was put on a gurney and was taken away by an American Medical Response ambulance.

Her condition and identity were not ascertained yesterday.

  • Lester Chang, staff writer, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225
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