Two announcements within a couple days of one another may have given people from Hanalei to Kee Beach — and all over the island, really — a glimmer of hope that normalcy is just around the corner.
First, the Hawaii Department of Transportation announced on Friday that Kuhio Highway would reopen for one-lane emergency vehicle traffic from Hanalei to Wainiha as early as May 7. Slides along the rest of the highway, which were large, but still comparatively minor, have been cleared and limited travel is possible from Wainiha to Kee.
A couple of days earlier, the department announced that it was moving up a $32 million project to replace three temporary bridges near Wainiha, to commence “immediately.” The project, which was the subject of extensive community consultations and controversy, had been on a state list of approved highway projects for work to begin in 2019.
Neither of these developments minimizes the ongoing, critical importance of a question that remains open and is likely to remain that way: Now what?
For so many reasons, after last weekend’s violent storm rendered the North Shore west of Hanalei cut off from the rest of the world, it is time to think about the ramifications for both the short and longer terms.
But Hanalei and the rest of the Kuhio Highway corridor will be the test of how well we can face hard decisions. Let’s start with one first reality. This storm was not “normal.” But with climate change seeming to affect us more and more each year, perhaps there is no “normal” anymore. Or, even worse, maybe this is the new normal.
I talked to Andrew Hood, a Honolulu-based engineer who did a landmark review of cesspool and septic tank pollution in Hanalei and has studied the hydrology of Hanalei in depth, relying on extensive technical readings and historic data.
Hood’s conclusion is that the weekend storm represented a confluence of several lethal factors. First, the ground on the North Shore was already saturated from an above normal wet season, so the ability of the soil to absorb a large infusion of new rain was extremely limited.
More important, though, is that a combination of atmospheric factors resulted in an extraordinary amount of rain actually falling in Hanalei, which potentiated the risks of runoff coming from its usual source in the mountain watershed above Hanalei. Usually, the bulk of the rain in any one storm falls in the mountains. Not this time, apparently.
One or two government-operated rain gauges failed during the storm, but Hood’s review suggests that as much as 39 inches of rain actually fell on Hanalei — more than the 27-inch official measurement but consistent with totals posted by a nationwide network of amateur rain and snow monitors, which includes at least one observer in Hanalei and several others in Princeville, Kilauea and Kapaa.
The Hanalei River, whose geologic history is complex and linked to two different volcanic eras on Kauai, may at one time — hundreds or thousands of years ago — not flowed from where its mouth now meets the ocean, but a hundred yards or so to the west, right by Hanalei Pier.
In other words, it may be true that the river used to come out where the flooding created a new channel last weekend.
Whether that new channel remains in existence can’t be predicted with certainty, but what is clear, Hood said, is that a new “normal” has struck Hanalei — and the rest of Kauai, actually — in which the idea that a flood of this magnitude won’t happen again for 100 years is a very dangerous assumption.
Hood said he reviewed speculation widespread on the internet — generally disseminated by people with no professional background in hydrology — that dredging the existing mouth of the river would have prevented the flooding. In a word: Not.
Instead, he said, a combination of the huge volume of water dropped by the storm, the already over-saturated soil and the fact that vegetation and creation of earth berms on the river bank combined to produce the chaos now clearly visible. Taro patches that adjoin the river generally help relieve flooding pressure, Hood said.
But this time, there was so much rain in Hanalei itself that the taro fields actually may have ended up increasing the flood flow. It was a beyond unusual event.
“There’s no question in my mind that the river was draining in a way that it naturally sought the straightest distance to the ocean,” he said.
On top of that, houses along Weke Road were shedding huge volumes of water from their roofs, which ponded on the ground below and weakened foundations — further increasing the risk of collapse.
All rivers adjust their courses over time and most man-made efforts to stop them usually fail. Whether the Hanalei River has made a permanent — or at least indefinite — change won’t be known for some time.
That has important ramifications for Kauai County since the County Council still has to vote one last time on whether to purchase a 3.2 acre parcel of land at Black Pot Beach, which would play a large role in rejuvenation of the park.
The problem is that the river cut through this land as it washed out Weke Road and caused at least four houses to collapse or be on the verge of collapse. The property the county wants to buy for $5.6 million is, as this is written, an island. Will it remain that way long term? That can’t be known for now, Hood said.
It presents the council with a dilemma: Close on the land purchase, but with the knowledge that the underlying ground is unstable, or complete the transaction, anyway? The council has its work cut out for it determining what to do about this purchase. Strong arguments could be made either way.
The question of whether the river was and where it is going to be in the future also bears directly on the dilemmas of people who own compromised homes on Weke Road — and, indirectly, elsewhere in Hanalei. Should they be allowed to rebuild? Governmental means of stopping them are limited, as are the county’s prospects of withdrawing their permits to be operated as vacation rentals.
“Any rebuilding should consider that this event happened and, while it was extreme and rare when we talk about historic events like so-called 100-year floods, in the big climatic context, that’s just a blip,” he said.
In other words, with climate change and other influencing factors, an event never seen before since records have been kept may not actually be all that unusual through time. It could happen again soon.
Some homeowners have apparently already served notice they will apply for urgent permits for reconstruction. If the permits are approved, replacement houses will have to be elevated enough to survive conditions like those that occurred last weekend. The owners will have a year to finish the work or face the prospect of their TVR eligibility lapsing.
But, Hood said, “I personally don’t think a moratorium on rebuilding should be imposed until it (the panoply of explanations for what happened) has been really looked at.”
He has a point. The county and state should launch an urgent, comprehensive and scientific review of what actually led to the damage that occurred.
Meanwhile, though, as flooded homeowners seek to replace their property, it’s also important that the county not permit creation of two lines at the permit counter: One for wealthy people with $15 million houses on Weke Road and the other for everyone else. That includes, first and foremost, Kauai residents of ordinary means whose lives have been directly devastated. This bears in mind that many of the Hanalei properties damaged and destroyed are vacation rentals owned by wealthy absentee landlords.
This brings us back to Kuhio Highway. There is a certain logic that the soil saturation and climatic collision that led to the massive damage in Hanalei also were at least partially responsible for the highway’s problems elsewhere.
While there were between eight and 12 individual slides on the road, two of them — one near Waikoko and the other just east of Wainiha — resulted in complete breaches of the hillside that supported the roadway. These are not situations where fill can be dumped in and asphalt thrown over it except, perhaps, for creation of a single, narrow temporary lane for emergency vehicles. Estimates I’ve heard for actual reconstruction go as high as five or six months — perhaps longer.
The Wainiha bridges project is directly related. The engineering behind the plan calls for three temporary bypasses to be built on bridges between Hanalei and Wainiha. Without them, getting materials to the bridge site would not be possible. And if one or two sections of the road have to be rebuilt as, essentially, new bridges, the process will be even more complicated. Will materials have to be brought in by barge? That is not yet known.
In one sense, the fact that so much time and effort have been invested in the planning for the bridge replacement project is a blessing in disguise. Engineering studies that would have to have been done already have been, but the engineering challenges of making the rest of the road safe for regular traffic are still in the future. The state is rushing materials to Kauai, but engineering work, excavation and construction of footings and supports will not be quick.
Whatever is done must be done with an eye on avoiding future disasters, not simply putting band-aids on past ones.
Ironically, the storm tragedy may serve the needs of another plan — for the Haena Beach State Park. Its goals are driven by over-use by tourists, especially at Kee and on the Kalalau Trail. With tourist access limited for months to come, time is created for a rational process to move the Haena Park project forward. Instead of doing it in phases, the state could do it all now.
Then there is the county’s plan to redo Black Pot Beach Park. The storm has made this even more complicated, since it isn’t known at this time where the river will end up and the stability of everything toward the east end of Weke Road is in question.
County Council Chairman Mel Rapozo, who’s running for mayor, has been advocating for construction of a span next to the Hanalei River bridge as a means of improving safety of Hanalei in extreme events. But not only would the community probably fight the project tooth and nail, but it’s doubtful such a second bridge would do anything except to slightly move a traffic choke point, which currently serves to keep speeds down and driving a little safer.
In short, it remains true today that more is unknown than known in terms of how to get traffic and beach access straightened out again. While the state’s two announcements are encouraging, the question that still looms is: “Now what?”
Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.