Debris poses potential health hazard

LIHU’E — Residents living along Wailapa Stream could be facing potential health hazards if Kaua’i County officials don’t start removing tons of debris that filled the stream after the March 14 dam breaching in Kilauea that took seven lives, Kaua’i County Council members were told earlier this week.

During a meeting of members of the council’s Committee of the Whole at the historic County Building, residents reported pools of water mixed with chemicals sitting idle in spots along the stream, and debris beginning to rot as warm, sunny weather returns to Kaua’i.

“It has been three weeks. The weather is getting warm and everything is starting to rot,” said Gary Henderson, who owns property above the stream on Wailapa Road, during a break in the meeting.

He added there are “a lot of things in the water that are unidentifiable.”

In addressing members of the council, County Engineer Donald Fujimoto said the work of clearing the debris could start in two weeks, as long as environmental hurdles are cleared.

“We are talking about a stream area that is sensitive,” Fujimoto told council members.

Henderson was among 30 residents who attended the council committee meeting asking for help.

They also emphasized that steps must be taken to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring, that residents and tourists should be prevented from walking along high cliff banks along the stream that could collapse, and that somebody should pay for the restoration of properties damaged by the flooding.

County officials have said the responsibility of making right what went wrong actually rests with leaders of state government, because they were tasked by law to monitor the condition of the Ka Loko Reservoir before it breached.

State officials have said a manpower shortage has hindered proper inspections of such reservoirs, not only those on Kaua’i, but those found throughout the state.

The breaching of the Ka Loko Reservoir sent millions of gallons of water down-stream that severely damaged Kuhio Highway, destroyed two homes in which seven people slept, and ripped out forests of trees lining the banks of the stream.

Three bodies were recovered, and the four missing are presumed dead.

In the spirit of wanting to help, county officials have taken the lead in expediting the flood recovery.

Officials including Council-woman JoAnn Yukimura and Gary Heu, Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste’s administrative assistant, asserted that funds will be used for cleanup work along the stream, not for restoration work.

“There is a distinction between ‘cleanup’ and ‘restoration,'” Yukimura said.

Yukimura said when she was mayor after Hurricane ‘Iniki in 1992, members of her administration set up a process for segregating hurricane debris, and wondered whether the debris from the Kilauea flooding site, including large trees and building materials, would all be dumped at the Kekaha Landfill.

Fujimoto said none of the options being considered calls for the disposal of the debris in its current form at the landfill, suggesting the debris would be chopped up before disposal.

If residents are wondering whether government funds are immediately available to start the work, they need not worry, said Heu.

Heu, who attended the meeting, said council members and the mayor met shortly after the March 14 tragedy in Kilauea, and approved the use of $950,000 in emergency funds to assist with flood recovery across the island.

Heu said leaders of the federal and state governments also are ready to help.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai’i, in a news release, announced the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Fiscal Year 2006 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill.

That measure includes $33.5 million in disaster assistance for Kaua’i and parts of Wind-ward O’ahu that also were hit hard by flooding in recent weeks.

Members of the entire U.S. Senate and President Bush must give their approval before those funds are released.

In addition, Gov. Linda Lingle also wants to use $14 million in state funds for flood recovery in Hawai’i, Heu said.

Where the county funds might be used exclusively for cleanup work, portions of the federal funds may be used for soil stabilization along Wailapa Stream, according to a news release from Inouye.

Henderson said the flooding gouged away banks along the Wailapa access road to Rock Quarry Beach (Kilauea Bay) in Kilauea, and although county officials have placed at least one no-entry sign and orange cones in the area to keep people away, people continue to drive on the road to take a look at the devastation, and to place flowers near the stream to acknowledged the seven people who perished.

“The banks are unstable. There are fresh water springs underneath,” he said. “And people are going out on the edge. There are people out there with little kids.”

Henderson said the damage by the flooding was immense, and while he isn’t specifically asking the county to cover the cost of restoring damaged properties, he said he wanted “them (legislators) to be aware of it.”

Gordon Furze, who owns a farm that is located mauka of Kuhio Highway and along Wailapa Stream, said he isn’t so concerned about the cleanup, as he expects that will happen.

“My concern is the loss of land,” said Furze, who worked on his farm for nearly three years.

“Part of my land is now missing.” The best solution would be for the county officials to reassess the value of his land downward, because there is less land to assess, he said.

Prior to the March 14 flooding, the width of the stream measured about 10 feet across.

In its wake, the flooding created a swath of debris that measured 150 years across the width of the stream, state Civil Defense officials have reported.

Furze said the river and surrounding lands were “part of why we loved the land so much,” adding that “it was a dream land (before the flooding).”

The flooding drastically changed the serene environment, he said. “Now that has totally changed,” he said. “It looks like a waste land.”

In spite of the devastation, Furze remains optimistic about the recovery of the area, although he feels that will take time.

Henderson, meanwhile, said many property owners on Wailapa Stream who saw their properties severely damaged by the flooding “want prevention.

“This is not a national disaster. This is a manmade disaster, which means it is completely preventable,” Henderson said.

Mimsy Bouret said that, while she doesn’t live on Wailapa Road, she represents three landowners along the stream who “have had their lives changed forever. They need help.”

She blamed North Shore landowner James Pflueger for the March 14 flooding, saying his apparent inattention to the condition of the Ka Loko Reservoir led to the tragedy.

Council Chairman and Committee of the Whole Chairman Kaipo Asing offered caution that Pflueger not be blamed. Pflueger reportedly has ownership interest in the reservoir.

State Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua’i-Ni’ihau, meanwhile, has requested an independent investigation be conducted to ascertain the cause of the flooding.

Kaua’i resident Amy Marvin voiced sentiments similar to those offered by Bouret, adding that the loss of life affected her deeply.

“The very first moment, my husband and I went out at first light and started searching, looking for Bruce’s (Fehring, who owned two homes in which the seven people were staying and were destroyed by the flooding) family foremost, because we have known him personally for many years,” Marvin said. “I am sad, I am dumbfounded. And I am angry.”

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