Repairs at a snail’s pace

Who knew the tree snail could create so much static for Hawaii Public Radio on Kauai?

Well, until recently, no one.

But now, the endangered creature is doing just that, much to the chagrin of Michael Titterton, HPR president and general manager.

“We’re completely in the dark,” he said Tuesday. “We still don’t know when we’ll be back on.”

The problem is this: Recent storms knocked out Hawaii Electric Company’s power lines to the radio station’s relay facility at the summit of Mount Ka’ala in the Wai’anae range, the island’s highest peak at 4,025 feet. At that facility, two boosters beam signals to the east and south sides of Kauai, as well as to Oahu’s North Shore. A microwave relay also sends signals to KIPL 89.9 in Lihue.

Station generators carried the signal for several days, but ran out of fuel on Sept. 30, the eve of HPR’s $1 million pledge drive. Titterton said the repairs that need to be made are basically just replacing some blown fuses on a line, which is simple enough. And normally, HECO would have made the repair with little delay.

What’s not so simple is that the site of faulty fuses happens to fall in habitat of the tree snail, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

And it also happens to be mating season for the slow-moving snail.

So, HECO crews can’t go to the area without the proper official to be sure there isn’t any “take” of a snail — in other words, no snail is hurt or killed. A date for that to happen hasn’t been scheduled.

Titterton said it’s a hard hit for the nonprofit not just because of the lost air time for the fundraiser, the break in statewide service, but also because it could hurt the bond of trust it’s building on Kauai, where it began broadcasting about six months ago. HPR takes pride in providing commercial free, uninterrupted service, he said.

“We’re a little annoyed about this,” he said.

Darren Pai, spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, said it is important for the company to be good environmental stewards. Precautions are being taken to see that no harm is done to snails in the area prior to working on restoration of service.

In order to develop a schedule and plan repairs, Hawaiian Electric is coordinating with the Office of Conservation of Coastal Land, DLNR Division of Forestry Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The delay is to ensure that the work satisfies requirements of the various agencies.

“We want to get service returned to Hawaii Public Radio as soon as possible,” Pai said. “There is no specific timetable, but we want to do this as quickly possible.”

Titterton said HPR supports efforts to protect the snail.

“We perfectly understand and we’re all behind that,” he said.

The weeklong HPR fall pledge drive started the morning after the signal loss. When listeners tuned into HPR-1 they heard static instead of morning news and fine arts stream on KHPR 88.1/88.5 FM. When they tuned into HPR-2, it was the same noise instead of news, local talk, and music on KIPO 89.3 and KIPL 89.9 FM.

The static has continued, so HPR waits patiently for the snail mating season to conclude under its own timeline. Listeners on Kauai are asked to find their programs via live streaming using a free mobile app or digital cable broadcasts.

The fund drive is scheduled to conclude Friday. As of Tuesday, the drive was just over halfway to its goal.

Meantime, it has engineers looking at alternate ways it can provide its own power.

“That our radio signal is not being heard on Kauai and on Oahu’s North Shore right now has meant that this important semiannual conversation with listeners in these areas has been interrupted,” Titterton said. “But, we are trying to be philosophical, take a cue from the snails, and remember that we’re here for the long haul and that there will certainly be those who step up to preserve our habitat.”

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