Koloa residents fear Kilauea dam repeat

KOLOA — A 12-person panel that included Gov. Linda Lingle addressed the condition of the Waita Reservoir and six others located above the towns of Koloa, Kukui’ula and Po’ipu at a town meeting Monday night.

Speaking to about 300 flood-wary citizens, various state and county officials, experts and local business leaders continually stressed the integrity of the Waita Reservoir dam.

“Once the heavy rains started two months ago, Grove Farm took proactive management steps for all of our reservoirs,” said senior vice president Allan Smith.

Grove Farm owns the Waita Reservoir, which is currently classified as “high hazard” in the FEMA hazard-rating system, meaning there is significant potential for commercial and residential destruction in the event of a breach.

“The integrity of the Waita Reservoir was sound,” Smith said.

Representatives from Alexander & Baldwin, which owns the six other reservoirs in question, also said their dams were fine.

All dams in question were constructed between 1901 and 1915.

Officials from the state Civil Defense Agency, who conducted statewide inspections on all of Hawai’i’s 133 reservoirs and dams the week following the March 14 Ka Loko dam breach, echoed that sentiment.

“All (reservoirs) inspected posed no immediate threat to the structure of the dams,” said Civil Defense director Maj. Gen. Robert Lee.

In the wake of the Ka Loko disaster that spilled an estimated 420 million gallons of water, killed seven people and caused between $15 million and $30 million worth of property damage on Kaua’i’s North Shore, residents living below Waita — by far the island’s largest reservoir with a maximum capacity of 3.2 billion gallons — organized Monday’s informational session to put fears at ease and formulate a solution.

In addition to more water, the potential flood zone below Waita consists of a shallow layer of soil above hard volcanic rock, meaning if the dam failed, there would be nothing to contain or direct the flow.

State and county officials said efforts were underway to share the findings of the statewide dam inspections, as well as increase prevention methods.

“Once we get a chance to send (the findings) to reservoir owners, and they can formulate their action plans, they will be posted (on the Internet),” Lee said.

“We are making sure you have all the information you need, for now and the future,” Lingle said.

Increasing the use of available technology like computer modeling and core sampling was discussed, and officials assured the audience that all possible steps were being taken.

In a rare moment of frankness, Kaua’i Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste described a state scrambling to adjust to a new problem.

“As far as these breaching activities, in terms of how much water would come down and where it would go, we don’t know,” he said. “We’ve done (models) for (disasters) that we’re used to, the hurricanes, the tsunamis, but not for dams. We don’t know what would happen and how massive it would be. I’m not going say we know everything. We don’t.”

Baptiste also hinted that Hawai’i could be at the forefront of nationwide research.

“Across the country, this is not something they have a track record on,” he said.

Officials also took the opportunity to encourage civic awareness and mobilization as the best methods of disaster prevention.

“The nagging question is what degree can the community play?” said Ed Teixeira, deputy director of State Civil Defense. “Lots. You become the first responder. It’s your community and you know your neighbors.”

Teixeira said large-scale drills were impractical.

“For us to do an exercise for the whole community, it’s going to cost time, it’s going to cost money and it’s going to stop commerce,” he said.

“It almost takes an emergency to see how it will unfold.”

Though Lingle and others were greeted with applause, not all in attendance were as agreeable.

“They’re not going to give us any solutions tonight,” said Koloa resident Lambert Kaiminaauao. “They’re just going to tell us about the problem, but the problem is not new. We know about the problem.”

The root of the problem is rainfall. Starting on Feb. 20, Hawai’i’s western islands have been pounded by unseasonably hard rains. Kaua’i received 36.13 inches at Lihu’e Airport for the month of March, well above the normal three to four inches, said Mark Marshall, director of the Kaua’i Civil Defense.

The state Attorney General’s office recently announced its probe into the Ka Loko disaster is now a criminal investigation, and authority figures are quick to defer any blame.

“There is not anyone in this room who, during this disaster, did anything wrong,” said Baptiste. “We just had more water than we knew what to do with.”

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