JoAnn Yukimura remembers being mayor during Hurricane Iniki

The day after Hurricane Iniki swept through the Garden Isle, JoAnn Yukimura said she had a hard time knowing where she was, while taking an aerial tour of the damage.

“I coudn’t recognize Poipu. It looked like claws scraped the coastline,” said the county councilmember, who was mayor at the time. “What I saw in terms of the dramatically changed coastline stripped of all foliage and green was testimony to the powerful winds that swept over the island.”

When Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai, Yukimura slept on the floor of the mayor’s office.

On Sept. 11, 1992, sirens were blasted at around 7 a.m.

“It was hard to be prepared for it because it was such an intense storm,” she said.

After sounding the first siren, Yukimura said her team was ready to address the people’s needs.

“It was respond quickly, creatively and always thinking comprehensively long-term,” she said. “Because there was no real pre-planning, we had to set up the systems as quickly as the need became apparent.”

For example, the mayor’s office set up a shelter at the St. Regis Hotel in Princeville, convened a power committee and designated the Vidinha Stadium parking lot for rental cars.

While there were many unsung heroes before and during the storm, Yukimura’s administrative assistant Tom Batey proved to be a much-needed source of assistance and information.

Batey, who worked for 14 years with State Civil Defense, had joined her team a month before the storm.

Yukimura said it was a “stroke of luck” because he knew how to lead the island in a time of disaster, and ended up taking a pivotal role in the recovery process.

“I was prepared to exercise leadership, which I think I did well,” she said.

The storm caused over $2 billion in damage. It is estimated that 22,000 houses were damaged and over 5,000 utility poles were knocked down.

One of the hardest hurdles to overcome was the breach in communication. Telephones were not an option. Because of that, messages were sent via bikes, Yukimura said.

Ham radios and the KONG station were instrumental in getting information to the public.

But Kauai was lucky in that the death toll was low — four people perished in the storm, Yukimura said.

One person was hit by flying debris, while another was inside when a building collapsed. A responding military serviceman died. And a body washed up on shore after the storm.

Yukimura credits Kauai people’s resilience to surviving and weathering the storm.

“A lot of people knew how to camp, so they pulled out all of their camping gear,” she said.

She said the aloha spirit was key.

“Everyone helped each other. They cut through debris to make sure their neighbors were OK,” she said.

In the days following the hurricane, the No. 1 priority was making sure the water system worked, Yukimura said.

“We were in crisis, and we had to make sure people didn’t die of dehydration, especially the elderly,” she said.

Every morning, representatives from branches of the military, state and county officials and nonprofits like The Salvation Army and American Red Cross met to discuss a game plan.

It was during those sessions that details — like the fear that planes being flown in from Guam might be carrying the brown tree snake, and what to do with rubbish — were brainstormed.

After helping Guam recover from Hurricane Omar, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent supplies to Kauai from Guam.

“The scariest moment in my life was when someone said ‘But what about the Guam tree snake?’” Yukimura said. “If it came to Kauai, it would’ve caused more devastation than the hurricane.”

So, the county ordered that all planes coming from Guam be checked for snakes before sending supplies over.

When it came to rubbish, county officials wanted to recycle and divert as much as they could, so they enacted Operation Garden Sweep, which divided trash. That included the coordination of 5,000 military men, Yukimura said.

But local knowledge was also important, especially when it came to filing Disaster Survey Reports, which listed damages.

“The federal team didn’t know where things were, and many of the signs were blown down,” she said. “So we paired them with local property assessors who knew the island like the back of their hand.”

Yukimura believes the island learned much from Hurricane Iniki.

“I am pleased that there are more generators at all our water sources and sewage systems, we have a lot more identified shelter sites, and have amplified our self-sufficient legacy by training CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) teams — volunteers in each community who are trained and better equipped to help the community respond should we have another hurricane like Iniki come to our shores,” she said.

Iniki also had a lasting impact on those who lived through it.

“It was quite an experience,” she said. “In recent history, people use ‘before Iniki and after Iniki’ because it was such a significant event in everyone’s life.”

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