Search for victims called off

LIHU’E — Members of search teams suspended the hunt yesterday for four persons who remain missing since March 14, when the Morita Reservoir in Kilauea breached, sending millions of gallons of water down Wailapa Stream and taking three lives, Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste announced.

During a news conference at the Kaua’i Police Department headquarters in Lihu’e, where U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai’i, praised the search-and-rescue and flood-recovery efforts by officials with various government agencies, Baptiste said all that could be done to find the missing persons has been done to this point.

“We have done, and are 120 percent sure, they have covered (all) that they can,” Baptiste said.

The search, which began last Wednesday, when conditions became safer after the flooding, was suspended at 3:30 p.m. yesterday.

The search, however, could resume if signs of the missing folks surface.

Baptiste said search-team members, including the Hawai’i Urban Search and Rescue division of the state Civil Defense Agency, met with family members over the past two days.

The family members had 48 hours to understand “what has happened, what has been going on and, at the same time, come to grips with the finality of it all,” Baptiste said.

The bodies of two women and a man have been found since the breaching of first the Ka Loko Reservoir and then the Morita Reservoir between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. March 14.

Last Friday, the body of Aurora Fehring was found on a stream bed. The body of Christina McNees, 22, who was pregnant and was to have married one of the missing, Daniel Arroyo, was found last Wednesday near the Kilauea River mouth.

The third body, that of Alan Dingwall, who was in his 30s, was found offshore on the afternoon of the disaster, between a half-mile to one-and-a-half miles off the Kilauea coastline.

The other three missing persons have been identified as Rowan Fehring-Dingwall, Timothy Noonan and Wayne Rotstein (see the related story).

In searching for the missing, members of recovery teams “have gone through all the debris that was of significance,” Baptiste said.

They search debris that was of interest to dogs that are trained to find people, but the probes were unsuccessful, Baptiste said.

The searches combed “upstream and downstream,” but found no signs of the missing, Baptiste said.

Baptiste said he wished the outcome could be different. “I still wonder if we have done enough,” he said.

The sentiment of the searchers, he said, has been that they “wish they could search until we find them all,” Baptiste said.

During his fly-over of the disaster area in Kilauea in a Hawaii National Guard Black Hawk helicopter yesterday, Akaka said he came to understand the “power of nature, and the damage that was done from the Ka Loko Dam downstream to the shoreline.”

Authorities said 300 million gallons of water from both reservoirs slammed into the mauka side of Kuhio Highway, and overran the road.

The flood cut a swath 150 yards wide across a stream that was usually no more than 10 feet wide, officials said.

The explosion of water ripped out forests of trees on both sides of Wailapa Stream, destroyed at least two homes in which the seven people slept, and sent them down-stream amid the tangle of trees and debris from the broken homes, officials said.

Akaka said that if anything good came out of the tragedy, it was the quick and efficient teamwork of members of the federal, state and county emergency-response agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Geological Survey team.

“It is amazing to me to see the improvements that have been made since the disaster,” Akaka said, “and I am comparing (it) to other disasters in our country, and I am really proud of the work that our officials have done.” He tipped his hat to members of Baptiste’s administration for their contribution to the recovery effort, and the care and support Kauaians have shown toward the flood victims and members of their families.

“The spirit of the people of Kaua’i is great,” Akaka said.

Akaka said that he and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai’i, introduced on March 16, S2444, the “Dam Rehabilitation and Repair Act,” a proposal to amend the federal dam-safety act.

If approved by members of the U.S. Congress and President Bush, the legislation would do these things:

  • Direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency leaders to establish a grant program for the repair and rehabilitation of dams across the nation;
  • Require the assessment of dams and their conditions;
  • Identify the locations of dams and their status;
  • Establish a cost-sharing arrangement between leaders of counties and states for the work.

Ed Teixeira, vice director of the state Civil Defense Agency, who also was on Kaua’i and attended the news conference, said he was glad Akaka visited the Kilauea disaster site because “he saw first-hand what we are talking about.”

Teixeira said he talked with Akaka about where the “state would need help, particularly with storm debris that you can find in the steam on the windward side of O’ahu and some of the streams here on Kaua’i that I could see from the air (during a fly-over in a Black Hawk helicopter) of the flooded Kilauea areas and other areas on the island.”

Teixeira also said that he informed Akaka that the state leaders had submitted to FEMA officials a joint preliminary-damage assessment.

The action marks the first step that would enable FEMA leaders to validate or refute damage-assessment reports for the North Shore of O’ahu and Kaua’i County generated by state and county agencies, he said.

A report for damage done to communities on the North Shore of O’ahu by heavy rains and flooding has been completed and has been sent to FEMA officials, Teixeira said.

Teixeira said members of FEMA teams will be in Hawai’i Friday to work with leaders of state and county agencies to either initiate or complete preliminary damage-assessment reports.

The next step, if it can occur, would be for Lingle to ask for federal emergency assistance, Teixeira said.

In other matters, Bob Masuda, the deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said dam experts have completed surveys of 54 reservoirs on Kaua’i, including 10 owned by the state.

The teams included nine engineers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, dam specialists and 10 DLNR engineers, Masuda said.

The DLNR team members have worked in rotating shifts, flying to flood-damaged areas on O’ahu, Maui and the Big Island as well, Masuda said.

Two reservoirs on Kaua’i drew the interest of members of the teams: Alexander Dam in Kalaheo, and another between Lihu’e and the North Shore, Masuda said.

Neither poses a threat to communities, one because it is located far inland and is removed from large population centers, and the other because the water level is quite low, he noted.

Masuda also said he wants members of the state Legislature to appropriate funds to “do more intensive studies, coring, and scientific investigations” of reservoirs in Hawai’i.

Leaders of Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration asked for $14.3 million in emergency appropriations from members of the state Legislature to address damage from heavy rains and flooding across the state.

In other matters, Teixeira announced that officials with state and county agencies will open a disaster-assistance-recovery center at the Kilauea Neighborhood Center this Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A similar center will be opened at the Kalaheo Neighborhood Center on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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