We were far from home on Sept. 11, the 23rd anniversary of Hurricane Iniki, our most destructive storm in remembered island history, but our thoughts were with the island of Kauai. Before we flew away for a celebration of life for a beloved family member, and when we returned home, too, the storm headlines and weather reports alerted us regularly.
In my last column I mentioned a painful centipede sting my husband suffered as part of our hurricane readiness. That was nothing in comparison to what we experienced when Iniki roared through, as everyone who lived through that storm and its seemingly endless recovery period will recall.
There are scads of stories from that time. Those of us residents who are about age 30 or older can probably dredge up a few. Our newspaper carried many human interest reports, including those of visitors. Although there was minor loss of life reported as a direct result of that 1992 storm, my husband and I noticed an increase in obituaries for people in their 60s and up. This started toward the end of the year and ran into 1993. We hazarded a guess (based on our own ages and how stripped and tired we felt) that the reason might be that many seniors just gave up when faced with the loss of what they’d worked so hard to establish (their homes and possessions) for their later years, and also the labor involved with home and yard recovery, some deprivation with the interruption of accustomed services and food availability, plus the loss of important documents and beloved mementos, such as photographs.
Two of the things I personally missed the most in the aftermath were, first, fresh produce — especially crisp, cold salads, and home-grown fruit, since it all had blown away or was storm-damaged, and second, peace and quiet, since once the generators to provide electricity hummed to life, there was a constant, loud drone from morning to night. Two of the things I greatly appreciated (beyond our being alive and uninjured) were an insurance company that did not renege (we were within the group of lucky ones), and the aloha of our neighbors and friends, with the sharing and support that followed the actual storm.
Traumatizing it was, for me and numerous other Kauai people, seniors to tots. Even though we bunkered down in our modest home’s hallway with comforters and plenty of water, flashlights and other necessary items, this safest place didn’t continue to feel safe. The wind increased to sound like an oncoming train, the patio door blew in, the roof began to peel off, projectiles were hurled, waterfalls began pouring through the ceiling, worry increased. Next, our neighbors’ A-frame house exploded, glass shattering loudly and a large beam jettisoning into our attached carport like a javelin, shaking our walls and roof. After the stillness of the eye of the storm, when we learned our neighbor was safe, the winds slammed back again. Iniki seemed intent on making sure nothing would remain unscathed. It was then I experienced true PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I curled over in a fetal position, covered my ears and shook.
Much later, I sorted this out, thinking how the hurricane brought back long-buried fear. As a youngster, I was with my family and other managers’ families who lived above the Brookbonds/Lipton Tea factory in Calcutta, India, after air raid sirens blew in the night. We hurriedly descended to a basement bomb shelter. I remembered once again feeling the building above me tremble and shake as bombs exploded. This was during World War II — so that early fear experience remained buried away from my everyday consciousness for a long span. I think it was our own warning sirens going off early the day of Iniki that started me toward the spiraling experience that gradually escalated with the ferocity of the storm.
Writing this, I realize we were fortunate to own gas appliances and have a supply of fuel in our tank, as well as having our water turned on soon. Many people went without being able to cook indoors and bathe for weeks. We waited long for our contracted work crew, so I soon joined the FEMA team in the field, feeling good about doing something constructive rather than carping about the growth of mold and mildew and mourning the loss of my lifetime library.
When the schools reopened, my husband was one of the few who could prepare handouts and tests. Much to the chagrin of his biology kids, he still knew how to type masters on his old typewriter and hand crank the mimeo machine. At the end of that school year, he stymied the kids again when they claimed hurricane loss for their textbooks, since it wasn’t his practice to hand them out at the start of the year, when Iniki hit.
A year later, teaching as visiting Poet in the Schools, I read and based a writing lesson on Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Wind begun to rock the Grass / With threatening Tunes and low – / He threw a Menace at the Earth – /A Menace at the …” The younger children listened, solemn and wide-eyed, then wanted to talk-talk-talk of their Iniki experiences. One second-grade class produced the strongest writing I’d seen from them, drawing from a subject they knew all too well.
Those children are grown, and many are now parents. I strongly hope that their young ones can stick to their ABC’s and not get stopped somewhere down the alphabet if we get a storm hurled at us down the line bigger than the recent Ignacio and Jimena. It would be good if we’d never hear past Kevin, Linda and Marty to the names next on the list of storm names under the Eastern North Pacific heading at https://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/www/tcp/Storm-naming.html
Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author and poet, regularly instructs on the topics of history and Hawaiian culture for visitors to Kauai through Hawaii Pacific University’s “Road Scholar” program through Pacific Islands Institute. The writer is completing her second memoir, based on the Burma of pre- and post-World War II times. She continues as principal and owner of TropicBird Press and TropicBird Weddings & Celebrations-Kauai under DAWN Enterprises.