WAINIHA — Residents on Kauai’s North Shore don’t want life to go back to the way it was before the April floods.
Too many people have been finding their way to the end of the road, they say, and they point to the estimated 2,000 average daily visitors to Haena State Park when it’s open.
“Since the National Guard and the Army left there’s been a new level of peace. There’s no helicopters overhead every five minutes,” said Elsa Flores Almaraz, who lives in Haena.
She continued: “Really, it’s beautiful, reclaiming what was once a sleepy neighborhood and a rural community out here.”
Flores Almaraz said she’s meeting some of her neighbors for the first time and together, they are taking on challenges.
“Living in Haena during the post-flood times has been a mixed bag of blessings,” she said. “My neighbors were the first responders during the flood. People are becoming community leaders. It’s beautiful and community-building for us.”
Currently, Kuhio Highway is closed past a checkpoint in Waikoko and the route is only open for local traffic at specific times, allowed through in convoys from about 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
That closure is preventing tourists from driving farther than Waikoko and it’s not just residents that are reportedly enjoying the rest.
“There’s usually this film over the water in the summer months, probably sunscreen,” said Koral McCarthy, who has been working with the Kauai Flood Kokua in Hanalei to help with flood relief. “Now, it’s clear. There’s more fish.”
Tuesday night Hawaii Department of Transportation briefed about 150 people on the status of the repair projects that would open the area up once again to traffic.
High on the priority list is the replacement of the “3W Bridges” — the Waioli, Waipa and Waikoko bridges, which is being funded by federal emergency repair money and should be done within the next four months.
The project has been on the books for a while, but was fast-tracked as a result of the flooding.
All three bridges are needed for heavy machinery access, according to HDOT project manager Larry Dill, and are necessary to complete repairs on and along the highway.
Attendees at the meeting suggested postponing the bridge projects and barging or helicoptering in supplies instead, but Dill said those proved to be expensive options.
Others mentioned alarm at HDOT fast-tracking the bridges project and upgrading the weight limit to 20 tons, pointing out that opens the door for more people in Haena.
“We did look at other options,” Dill told the crowd. “The bridge work facilitates the other emergency repairs.”
Work will happen at night on the bridges and it’s expected to take about four months to complete.
After the April floods, HDOT received $8 million in quick release Federal Highway Administration Emergency Relief funds for projects on Kuhio Highway, including the bridge replacements.
Other projects include repairs to two stream sites in Haena and debris removal from an additional three stream sites, five roadway stabilization projects, three bridge replacement projects and 18 slope stabilization projects.
“We have about 32 sites that need some sort of repair work,” Dill said. “We’re trying to get the roadway repaired and then there’s a number of slope stabilization projects in order to get the road to where it once was.”
HDOT had its eye on the slopes at Waikoko before the flooding, Dill said, because some erosion problems were already becoming evident. Workers are moving forward with that plan.
“What we’re doing in that location is a reinforced concrete wall,” Dill said.
The state has also fast-tracked the Haena State Park master plan and if signed by Gov. David Ige, that plan will limit the number of visitors to 900 in the park daily.
Some residents say it’s perfect timing.
“This is a wonderful opportunity,” Flores Almaraz said. “This is a time to reset. It’s been out of balance out here. We’re not anti-tourist or anti-visitor, but it was way out of balance.”
What is helpful for residents is the addition of a 10:30 p.m. Wainiha to Waikoko trip for convoys through the two-mile stretch, with an 11 p.m. Waikoko to Wainihi trip becoming the last trip of the night on weekdays.
“That road, there are a few drop-offs where one lane is gone, but they’re punctual in getting the convoys out on time and everyone is cooperating,” Flores Almaraz said.
She continued: “Before, if I needed to take my car to Lihue for repair, I wouldn’t be able to get back in time. It’s good for everyone.”