HAENA — The water is crystal clear and turtles troll the reef at Ke‘e Beach, beyond the Kuhio Highway roadblock on Kauai’s North Shore.
Limu decorates rocks at the water’s edge with its long, green tendrils and opihi clinging to boulders waiting for the rising tide. The white stretch of sand that’s known for epic sunsets and sweet swimming is nearly empty. Only an occasional runner or local beachgoer leaves footprints in the sand.
And just as workers arrived at the lifeguard stand to start their day working on a historic cabin tucked beside the Kalalau Trail, Avemaria Goodwin arrived to take advantage of an empty lagoon.
“I usually try to get her earlier before the workers get here,” Goodwin said, swimming playful circles in the morning sun. “But this morning it was raining, so I stayed inside a little longer.”
A 30-year Wainiha resident, Goodwin has seen her share of change on the North Shore, but said since Kuhio Highway closed, things have been different.
“It’s all bouncing back,” she said. “I swim with turtles and seals, the reef is coming back.”
Betsy and Steve Rigotti, who also live just up the road from Ke’e Beach, said they’ve noticed a major change in the area’s ecosystem as well.
“The local fishermen are very happy,” Betsy Rigotti said. “I’ve seen more fins in the water.”
Both Rigotti and Goodwin pointed out they’ve seen a marked decrease in plastics and trash on the beach, as well.
And change has extended further into the valley, beyond the reefs that are blossoming and the marine life that’s frequenting the beach for a sunny snooze.
The very fabric of the Wainiha area has reverted back to a different time, a more rural time. Neighbors stop by more often to visit and check in with each other, dogs play in the street, people wave to each other as they pass by and cars stop mid-journey to talk story.
And in the midst of the rural life, the dump is still full of mud-soaked debris leftover from the floods that closed the road and wreaked havoc in 2018. Homes are still battling mold and needing repairs. Lines of derelict vehicles dot the roads, trees growing out of doors and windows – signs they haven’t been touched in a while.
“It’s an area in recovery and people with tons of damage,” said Rigotti, whose house was one of the few spared in the flood.
While they’re still trying to recover from the life-changing weather that rocked Kauai in 2018, the road is getting ready to reopen. And people wonder, what’s going to happen to the barely budding ecosystem and rural lifestyle when it does.
“They should do an environmental impact statement, see how usage is impacting this place,” Rigotti said.
Both she and Goodwin specifically pointed out the sheer amount of sunscreen that’s saturated the marine environment of Ke’e Beach, Makua Beach and the surrounding areas.
Both voiced concern and hopes that when people are allowed to once again visit the areas beyond the roadblock, they’ll be mindful of sunscreen’s impact on the environment and bring with them the brands that are reef safe and oxybenzone free.
“I worry about when people come back with their sunscreen, especially the kind they’re spraying all over the place,” Goodwin said.
As the sun made its trek toward midday, Goodwin headed back home to continue her day and a few Princeville residents showed up at Ke’e Beach, taking advantage of a few hours in between their work cleaning houses.
“It’s like it’s a different dimension,” Janet Carafa said as she stretched her arms out to soak in the sun. “We’re beyond paradise.”
••• Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or at firstname.lastname@example.org