‘We became one big ohana’

The Garden Island was the primary news source following Hurricane Iniki. It took a helping hand and the personal sacrifice of eight employees who left their families and damaged homes to publish vital recovery information daily from Oahu.

Rita De Silva was the news editor of The Garden Island at the time Iniki struck. She said staff remained inside the building as darkness fell in the middle of the day, the winds grew strong and doors began to whip wildly.

An Associated Press reporter stayed with them the entire night at The Garden Island office, reporting back on the storm, De Silva said.

“We had no idea how bad it was, and in the morning we looked out for first time and it was such a scene of destruction,” De Silva said. “There were buildings around town that had been there forever and now were destroyed or in shambles.”

The airport was closed and cars were all over the roads, she recalls. Rental cars were parked wherever the drivers felt they could get out in a hurry, she said.

The power was down in Lihue for about 10 days, utility poles were strewn about and power was out for weeks and months in other parts of the island.

“We couldn’t do anything,” De Silva said. “We couldn’t put the paper out and had a meeting, and that is was why the production had to happen off island.”

The building did not suffer extensive damage, but without power the company wasn’t going to print anything anytime soon. So TGI sent a core group of eight people from editorial, composition and the printing press to Honolulu.

“My part was to get everything put together so that by 1 o’clock, everything would be at the airport because it had to be flown over,” said Dennis Fujimoto, longtime photographer and reporter for The Garden Island.

Fujimoto recruited two freelance photographers to help him gather images from across the island to relay back to Oahu — Fujimoto was going to cover the Westside, while the freelancers were going to photograph the South Shore, Eastside and North Shore.

“I did my part and went out west, but the shooters said the Mainland (media) was going to give them more money, so they left me,” Fujimoto said. “I was stuck. I had to do everything.”

Fujimoto knew De Silva wouldn’t be happy if he didn’t return with images, so when Jack Harter offered him an opportunity to survey the island by air, he took it.

“He flew, and I got my own tour,” Fujimoto said. “He took me where he felt the damage was the worst. … Based on what I could see from the aerial, I knew where I had to go to get photographs of the more damaged areas.”

One of Fujimoto’s first priorities was to drive west, where he recalls the generosity of people he encountered along the way.

The first was from a woman who worked at a gas station in Kalaheo: “I remember this lady telling me to bring my car over, and that she’d put gas in it. I said no, but she insisted. She hand cranked and topped off my tank. I never realized how important that was because there was no electricity, and there were gas lines everywhere after that. I got an extra two days because that lady topped off my tank.”

Another vivid memory for Fujimoto was when he drove to the site of Seto Store in Hanapepe.

“It was unreal,” Fujimoto said. “When I got there, it was flat. I remember walking through and there I found a waterlogged pack of cigarettes and a can of Hawaiian Sun juice. I offered to pay for it, but the lady said ‘No, take it.’”

After he gathered his shots for the day, Fujimoto would travel back to The Garden Island’s office in Lihue where he processed film in a 50-gallon drum of water in the parking lot.

“We had a string of lights that ran across the newsroom. It was like wartime conditions,” Fujimoto said.

Running out of film didn’t worry Fujimoto — he had enough inventory to last him a month — but the most challenging part was to meet that 1 p.m. deadline.

“One o’clock wasn’t the easiest deadline to meet,” Fujimoto said. “When the sun got up, you had four hours, and when you dropped off the film, you immediately started working for the following day. … You couldn’t shut the door and say, ‘OK, we pau work.’ No matter where you went, there’s stuff that’s happening, and you had to shoot it.”

Jimmy Oyadomari, who worked for more than 60 years at The Garden Island, was production manager at the time of Iniki. He recalled the newspaper had moved production once before, following Hurricane Iwa on Sept. 23, 1982.

Part of Oyadomari’s roof was damaged by Iniki. At one point the family moved themselves to the car and placed cushions in front of the windows.

“It was a strange sight to walk into the house and see it pouring rain inside,” he said.

The staff boarded military aircraft and were welcomed by their sister paper, Hawaii Beach Press, which was a large visitor publication.

Once the Beach Press daily operations were finished, The Garden Island crew went about their production schedule on a night shift.

“It was hard,” Oyadomari said. “We didn’t know how to set it up, but somehow we got it done.”

The main office remained the headquarters site. The staff was pretty experienced with years of reporting to their credit.

De Silva’s son Alan set up a Citizens Band radio at the paper. The reporters would go around the island and radio back with news.

The reporters communicated with Oahu via the few operating pay phones on the island. Some of the pay phones were guarded by armed military guards, Fujimoto recalled.

They sent hard copies of their news stories, along with rolls of film, by commercial plane.

“They ran the show by themselves,” she said. “They coordinated with us and figured out what needed to be covered.

“My crew was wonderful,” she added. “They were really good.”

There were countless acts of selflessness in the community, she said. People were sacrificing and giving what they had, helping each other with food, repairing roofs and cleaning up the mess.

“Everybody was a hero,” she said. “It was a special time.”

The newspaper’s parent company sent a mechanical superintendent from the Mainland with generators and ran them all day, Oyadomari said. It was still not enough power for the press, and the paper continued printing on Oahu as the news team returned.

The paper was flown back to Kauai each day. The company had a skeleton crew of delivery people, and residents would also come in to pick up papers for their neighborhoods.

“At one point the circulation director was out in the street and people would just stop and grab them,” De Silva said. “It was the first news they had seen. The people in Lihue had no idea what was happening in Waimea or Hanalei.”

There was no charge for the papers during the first few days after the storm, as it was considered a priority to get vital information out to the public. For example, the paper let people know where to go for services or how to handle emergencies.

The staff sent to Oahu welcomed the call to return to Kauai. They left behind damaged homes and families who weren’t happy about them leaving.

“We were waiting and wanting to come home so badly,” De Silva said.

Oyadomari said the printing continued on Oahu with the staffers working on a rotation. It was critical as people were really hungry and grateful for news about the other parts of the island, he said.

“It was the one time I felt really good,” he said. “We did something really good for the community and it was very gratifying.”

Oyadomari recalls the months that followed involved a lot of lunches at the Salvation Army and cooking on a kerosene stove. His children got tired of eating hamburgers, he said.

At the paper, everybody gave an extra effort that you don’t see unless something like a disaster happens.

“It’s amazing how people pulled together,” said Oyadomari. “They worked under very difficult conditions, and nobody complained. They put their head down and worked very long hours.”

The next challenge for the news team was to transition from emergency updates back to a newspaper again, De Silva said. Iniki had temporarily changed the paper’s direction from news to information provider.

“Two months later, we put together a special section and that was the beginning of us getting back to normal,” she said. “We all focused on the project and we were proud of it.”

It was the beginning of a five-year period of recovery. After a few months her reporters began to transition out and the family that weathered Iniki was breaking apart.

“The special section was one of the last things we all did together,” she said. “After that, people began drifting away.”

De Silva started at The Garden Island as a proofreader and worked in composition for 14 years, before moving into editorial as an associate editor. Her final two years at the newspaper was spent as the special sections editor. She retired in 2008 after 37 years with The Garden Island.

Fujimoto, who is still hard at work at The Garden Island, said he considers the hurricane and its aftermath one of the most important events he has covered as a reporter.

“I wouldn’t say it was a moment to be proud of, but a moment where we can feel a sense of achievement. … It’s an example of people’s resiliency and their goodness. It shows how at that time we became one big ohana.”

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