WAIMEA — U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Neighbor Islands-rural O’ahu, said state officials’ efforts to monitor several hundred reservoirs in Hawai’i have been insufficient due to manpower shortages.
The two positions within the state Department of Land and Natural Resources are not enough to do the job, he said.
“Because what I think is pretty clear is that efforts at the private, state and county dams in Hawai’i and beyond Hawai’i have suffered from just lack of attention, lack of focus, lack of funding, lack of allocation of resources,” he said.
“And it took a disaster to highlight this.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Kilauea, he said it’s imperative state government leaders step up to prevent another such occurrence.
Case also said some 80,000 dams exist in the United States, and leaders in the federal government have jurisdiction over only 5 percent of those.
Have officials of the federal government done enough to ensure the safety of federal, state, county and privately-owned dams?
No, he says.
“We have legislation in Congress that would expand federal spending for basic dam safety and maintenance efforts,” he said.
Case said Gov. Linda Lingle and Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste have gotten the ball rolling for federal help.
“My office has gotten confirmation an official request has been made by the state to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for a preliminary damage assessment,” he said.
If FEMA determines that no state resource are available to help and other conditions for federal help are met, Kaua’i County will be eligible for federal relief assistance.
If a federal declaration of disaster is declared, federal financial assistance will come to Kaua’i, Case said.
Case said he is doing what he can to pitch in and help.
Since the March 14 tragedy, Case and members of his staff have been in touch with representatives of the military, FEMA, the Coast Guard, and other agencies, encouraging them to render aid and help.
The fate of the Morita Reservoir that breached Tuesday and discharged millions of gallons of water that took the lives of three people and left four people missing rests with dam experts, Case said Saturday.
Case, who was on Kaua’i to conduct three talk-story sessions, in Lihu’e, Kapa’a and Waimea, said the structure may very well need to be drained and taken apart if dam experts now studying its integrity say the structure is unsafe and poses further public hazard.
On the other hand, the structure can be retained if ways are found to strengthen it, so that there is no repeat of the March 14 tragedy, Case told 10 residents at the Waimea Neighborhood Center.
Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, adjutant general who heads the state Civil Defense agency, has said the structure should be taken down because it poses a danger to Kaua’i residents.
A supplemental emergency declaration made by Gov. Linda Lingle gives Lee the power to do just that.
Before that happens, all options have to be explored, Case said.
“If an expert comes to me and says the Morita Dam is unsafe, my answer as a public official, is ‘well, then fix it,” he said.
Case said it seems to him that the reservoir could be “modified in a way to make it safe, as opposed to simply tearing it down.
“I don’t want to jump to a tear-down stage because, clearly, there has been long-standing use of that dam for agricultural purposes,” Case said.
An option would be to put in a “better system for over-flow,” he said.
He said a diversion has been created around the Morita Reservoir to help divert water, making the reservoir less of a threat.
Case said arguments by some residents in favor of tearing down the reservoir because it is no longer useful could gain strength if the experts determine the reservoir will remain a disaster waiting to happen even with modifications to it.
Case said congressional business in Washington D.C. prevented him from coming to Kaua’i sooner.
“We have been monitoring this. It has been frustrating for me to be sitting in Washington, having to do my congressional business,” he said.
“We voted all week, got on a plane as soon as I could, and got here to see it (the disaster) myself.”
Case said he visited the Morita Reservoir Saturday morning, and met with Kaua’i Police Department officers and Hawaii Army National Guard and Hawaii Air National Guard troops at various sites.
The devastation took his breath away, he said.
“Of course, it is devastating when you see it up close, in person,” Case said. “You realize how much damage was done by the wall of water coming down that stream.”
The safety of homes and residents who live along Wailapa Stream was “dependent on those reservoirs being safe, dependent on those reservoirs holding, even in rain-fall such as we obviously just had,” Case said.
Between 5 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. March 14, water over-ran the Ka Loko Reservoir banks, rushed down the Wailapa Stream, and gathered strength in the Morita Reservoir.
County officials estimated about 300 million gallons of water powered over and under Kuhio Highway, and plowed into a compound of homes near the stream.
The water took away homes that were occupied by seven people. Only the cement foundations remain.
Case said his state director, Jimmy Nakatani, met with farmers in Kilauea on Saturday to “target specifically agricultural damage from the rains and this flooding.”
Joining him on the island were his wife Audrey; Darrell Villaruz, Case’s legislative assistant in Washington D.C.; Dean Toyofuku, Case’s liaison on Kaua’i; and Richard Minatoya, a Case supporter and the first deputy prosecutor for Kaua’i County.
- Lester Chang, staff writer, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or firstname.lastname@example.org.