When the Ka Loko dam failed in the pre-dawn hours of March 14, 2006, its waters damaged a 100-yard stretch of Kuhio Highway spanning the Wailapa Stream valley, severing the island.
Along with residents, hundreds of visitors became stranded on the North Shore while hundreds of others with plans to stay in Kilauea and points west were already en route to the Garden Isle.
As travelers landed at Lihu‘e Airport, they were greeted not by traditional lei, but liaisons with the Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau who informed them of recent events, answered questions and assisted with alternative arrangements.
Stephanie Kaluahine Reid, director of public relations at the Princeville Resort, the North Shore’s largest resort property, said the hotel mobilized a group of managers to the airport by early afternoon to meet its arriving guests and direct them to its sister property, the Sheraton Kaua‘i in Po‘ipu.
“A big task was relocating those arriving visitors who had accommodations in Princeville and were suddenly left with nowhere to stay,” said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau. “Our partners did a great job helping to provide accommodations for these stranded visitors and save their vacation from being a negative experience.”
As images of a saturated Kaua‘i began to appear on news programs around nation, those with future plans to visit the island began to flood the KVB’s call center and bombard its Web site.
The call center, which Kanoho said normally receives between 700 and 1,000 calls a month, handled some 1,775 calls in March, the bulk of which came in the last two weeks of the month.
Almost 150 calls were handled on March 15 alone.
“The entire KVB team worked extra long hours during March,” said Kanoho.
Though ominous media reports in the weeks following the rains predicted a significant dip in the island’s visitor numbers, it didn’t come to fruition.
The Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism reported that Kaua‘i welcomed 1,181,230 visitors in 2006, an 8.4 percent increase over the previous year.
Visitor spending on Kaua‘i neared $1.3 billion, an increase of 9.5 percent over 2005, with the average visitor spending $165 a day.
According to Kanoho, most visitors who canceled their travel plans in March ultimately rescheduled.
The 2006 Visitor Satisfaction and Activity Report from the DBEDT noted a decline in overall satisfaction for Kaua‘i visitors in the first half of the year, which officials directly attributed to “unprecedented circumstances of rain and flooding in the first half of 2006.”
In the survey of 4,565 Mainland visitors, 60.5 percent rated their experience on Kaua‘i as “excellent,” compared to 72 percent a year earlier.
Kaua‘i visitors were still more likely to say they had an excellent experience than visitors to O‘ahu or the Big Island.
Though Kaua‘i is no stranger to rebuilding its image after tragedy — it took months for visitors to return after hurricanes ‘Iwa in 1982 and ‘Iniki in 1992 — the numbers suggest the events of last March had little, if any, long-term negative impact on the island’s major industry.
“Overall, Kaua‘i has held her own, despite the challenges we faced in 2006,” said Kanoho.
But the measure of Kaua‘i’s visitor industry goes beyond percentages and fiscal figures.
In the midst of last year’s extreme weather there were also extreme acts of aloha.
While Kuhio Highway remained impassable and the threat of flooding prevailed, local hotels provided meals for volunteers and rescue workers. Most airlines relaxed restrictions and waived change fees for stranded travelers.
Stranded visitors were offered reduced rates and assistance getting home.
The Princeville Resort picked up the tab for a charter plane to fly approximately 80 guests between the Princeville Airport and Lihu‘e, providing meals and music while guests waited to fly out.
The flights also helped stranded employees reunite with their families.
Kanoho said she’s proud of the way the island’s visitor industry performed in the face of adversity.
“Everyone stepped up and I think this collective support showed later as we received many letters and words of thanks acknowledging our partners for helping them to make the most of their stay during this difficult period,” Kanoho said.
Reid said that lessons from the island’s past helped them rise to the occasion.
“The island of Kaua‘i (is) very experienced when faced with diversity,” Reid said. “Our staff certainly proved that as they pulled together to ensure the well-being of our associates and guests.”
Less than 48 hours after Kuhio Highway was closed, authorities opened a single lane to traffic, reconnecting the island and opening the road to healing for both an island and its guests.
• Todd A. Vines is the associate editor of Essential Kaua‘i, Kauai Publishing Company’s visitor publication. He can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 256) or firstname.lastname@example.org