Who should we be guarding … our residents or our visitors?

• Author’s note: Welcome to the fifth installment of what we hope will be an interesting and educational feature in The Garden Island. I hope that I and some fellow contributors will succeed in keeping water safety on the front burner for all of us. We’ll be writing the column every other Wednesday and my plan is to chat about the things I’ve learned over my 15 years of working at this issue. — Monty Downs

The answer is obvious: Both. And when you go to our guarded beaches you will see a healthy mix of both.

Approximately 75 percent of our drownings are visitors, and the 25 percent of resident drownings is no insignificant number, especially since any/every one of them results in family agony. So again, silly question, we have to focus on both.

Nevertheless, there can be some nuances that arise from this question and we’re facing one of these nuances right now, namely at Anahola Beach.

In our simpler days, when a lifeguard showed up at the tower with his/her lunchbox for the day, we often had a weekend lifeguard at Anahola, particularly in the summers when the county traditionally takes on some part-time summer hires. And we have an old orange tower there still.

Things aren’t so simple any more. Our lifeguards are equipped with JetSkis and ATV’s and are wired into the 911 system and have trucks with lights and sirens that can and do speed off to incidents at beaches all around Kaua‘i.

This mobility has saved many lives the last few years, and it is what allows us to do a reasonable job of providing island-wide ocean-safety even as we work within the tight limitation of a rural county’s budget. (i.e., with our tax base we have 33 lifeguards; O‘ahu with their tax base has 180+ guards, covering an island that has less sand beach than does Kaua‘i). I am very proud that our Kaua‘i leaders have had the wisdom and commitment to put together this mobile service. And our lifeguards themselves have taken on this dramatic job-description change with great skill and valor (and without, let it be noted, a corresponding increase in their pay).

The price for this mobility is that we now need more lifeguards per tower. In fact we now need five lifeguards assigned per tower, in order that three will be there on any given day. Three is what it takes to safely launch a JetSki, and then when the ski flies off to its destination, there will still be a guard at the tower to maintain coverage at the home-base beach — which is often crowded with people (and this is in line with our promotional push to have people swim at guarded beaches).

Now, we have eight towers and 33 guards — and that of course doesn’t add up to five per tower. By rights we should add seven more lifeguards right now just to get ourselves up to standard — but that is not easily accomplished within our rural budget. I feel fortunate to get two new positions per year. Our eight towers, by the way, are Ha‘ena Beach Park, Hanalei Bay (two towers), Kealia, Lyd-gate, Po‘ipu Beach, Salt Pond, and Kekaha. We obviously do not have personnel to staff any other towers, being short on the ones we have.

So, getting back to Anahola: We therefore now have a rusting, unused tower standing there (similarly at Wailua), and we can’t staff it. Anahola, meanwhile, is often regarded as a beach which residents/locals utilize more than visitors. Furthermore, Anahola is home to many of our native Hawaiians, and they have their great tradition of setting up campsites for family gatherings, as permitted there at the beach park. Thus there can be a perception, and there certainly is to some, that the county is neglecting guarding our locals. An irony in this discussion is that we’ve had three people drown at Anahola in the last couple of years and they were visitors. And no question, Anahola is a dangerous beach, wide open to tradewind conditions that generate a dangerous shore break and strong rip currents.

All this has led to a difficult quandary with county decision-makers: Should we remove the rusting tower, which provides a false sense of security to those who might not know that it’s unmanned (plus it’s dangerous for kids to play on)? Or should we dig further into our budget and staff it? Or can we figure out some kind of rural health or Hawaiian Homes grant to help staff it? Or should we just let it stand as is, rusting and vacant, and thereby avoid the possible outcry that might come forth if it were removed?

At times like this I’m very relieved that I’m not a politician — a mayor, a councilor — because this is a tough decision and one that carries some very awkward political undercurrents. It’s one of many tough decisons that our politicians make, and having entrusted them with our vote, we can only wish them wisdom and courage and a good outcome no matter what their decision is. As for you and me: I really love the county’s motto “One Island, Many Peoples, All Kauaians.” I think we all lose a little piece of our heart when someone drowns, usually in a very untimely manner and leaving behind a bereft family; and we all have our hearts lifted when a rescue is made, easily or dramatically, resident or visitor.

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