Derek Kawakami recalls ‘sound of the hurricane’

The day before Hurricane Iniki struck Kauai, Derek Kawakami was a sophomore, playing varsity football for the Kauai High School Red Raiders.

He remembers going to practice and the coach telling the team to be ready for the next day’s game and to get a good night’s rest.

“I can remember just perfect weather,” Kawakami said. “Not a cloud in the sky.”

The clouds, and more, came the next morning.

Kawakami, today a Kauai County councilmember, is married to Monica and is raising a family. Twenty-five years later, he remembers Sept. 11, 1992 well. He remembers the sound of the winds, while hunkering down at home, and the damage afterward. He also remembers how the island endured Iniki and how it came together.

“We can hope that the aloha that was expressed during that last hurricane still resonates today, because that’s what got us through,” he said. “What really got us through that thing was that aloha spirit.”

SUBHEAD STYLE: Friday morning, Sept. 11

“I remember waking up to sirens and my dad saying, ‘We’ve got to do down to the store.’ I got up, brushed my teeth, threw my uniform on for Big Save, and I was out there bagging groceries.”

Kawakami wondered if it was a precautionary action, or if the hurricane was really coming.

Soon, his father, Charles, said they had to leave the store and get home.

“I can recall the concern on my mom’s face. I can recall the voice of Ron Wiley and I can recall my dad saying ‘Everything is going to be OK. Everybody has got to be calm,’” Kawakami said.

“I remember him being on the phone and then that storm came. We have these big, huge picture glass windows and my dad and I were just kind of standing in front of one, kind of in awe because this thing was breathing.”

They had taped the windows.

“My mom was screaming at us, ‘What are you two doing?’ Those big glass windows were just breathing. It looked like it was breathing.”

It was about then that young Kawakami had a thought: “This thing might not end well.”

His mother wanted the family to go to a shelter.

“My dad was like, ‘No, we’ll be fine. We’ll hunker down. We’ll be fine. We’ll be OK as a family. We’ll get through this.’”

His father, he said, was a steady ship.

“The more catastrophic something is, the calmer he would be,” Kawakami said. “He was always calm. I think that’s where I get my calm demeanor.”

His father told him, the worst thing you can do is panic in times of trouble.

“If things are going wrong, you need to take a step back, take some deep breaths and collect your thoughts,” his father told him.

SUBHEAD STYLE: The storm

“When the eye passed, we all went outside and looked around,” Kawakami said.

The Kawakami home had minor damage. Some of their neighbors weren’t as fortunate.

Kawakami recalls a knock on the door. His father answered, then turned back to him: “We got to go down to the store.”

They drove down, weaving around debris, downed poles and trees in the road.

Their store, Big Save in Lihue, had taken a hit, too.

“But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Kawakami said. “I remember us pulling all the perishable items and just donating them. Those are the things we wanted to send out to the community first. I remember my dad doing that.”

In the days after Iniki, the Big Save team — clerks, managers, part-timers and full — came together as ohana.

“We had good loyal workers. Even though they had things to tend to at home, they had houses to rebuild, they all came in. They all knew they were a bigger part of the solution of serving their community.”

Led by Charles Kawakami, they came up with a plan.

“In the coming days it was a testament of patience and cooperation of the community members,” Derek Kawakami said.

It was incredibly hot and muggy. Electricity was out. There was no water. Kids fussed and cried.

But there was no anger.

“Everybody understood to get through this whole thing, we all needed to be part of the solution,” he said.

To operate efficiently and orderly, the number of people allowed in the store at one time was limited.

Kawakami recalls everyone working tirelessly, looking after each other.

“I remember seeing lines out there and people out there just cooperating,” he said. “The aloha spirit was there. During one of the darkest moments in our island’s history, it was the aloha that really brought some sunshine to this thing.”

SUBHEAD STYLE: Football

Kawakami admits one thing: As a teenager who loved sports, one of his big concerns at the time was football. He was excited to have been named a starter.

“In all honesty, my passion at that time was football and I thought the football season was going to be cancelled,” he said.

“I don’t think at the time I understood the magnitude of what had happened.”

He asked his dad about going to an Oahu school, Mid-Pacific Institute, so he could play. His dad agreed.

“I remember KIF saying ‘OK, we’re going to reinstate the season,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Man, I should have just stayed home.’”

His season didn’t go as hoped.

Kawakami was an undersized center and defensive end, playing varsity, going against guys bigger and stronger. A few weeks later, he suffered a shoulder injury, “which pretty much ended my football career.”

He was OK with it — later.

“Nonetheless, it was a learning experience,” he said.

SUBHEAD STYLE: Today

Kawakami hasn’t forgotten the lessons of Iniki. Every hurricane season, he and Monica review their supplies, check their list, be sure they have everything in case another hits.

“My wife and I don’t take it lightly,” he said.

“What we’ve been through, even if it is 25 years later, we still remember it. I remember the sound. That’s what I remember the most, was the sound of metal, wood creaking, glass breaking — the sound of the hurricane.”

Kawakami occasionally hears people comment that they wouldn’t mind another hurricane.

He shakes his head at that.

“I don’t think they know what they’re asking for,” he said.

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