Saved by grace — and volunteers

  • Photo provided by Susan Ferrell

    The Wa’ioli Hui’ia Church stands in a pool of muddy water that spread across Hanalei last April.

• Editor’s note: The Garden Island continues a series of stories on the one-year anniversary of the flooding that devastated much of the island. We are looking at the impacts of the flood, the recovery, how things stand today and what’s ahead.

HANALEI — Last year, torrential rains pushed water over the banks of North Shore rivers and into nearby taro fields. The water continued to rise, eventually reaching the grounds of one of the island’s oldest churches, coating its floorboards in thick, brown mud.

Susan Ferrell, treasurer of Wa‘ioli Hui‘ia Church, remembers how the catastrophic floods nearly destroyed a Hanalei landmark and how the community came together to save it.

“We didn’t know it was gonna flood. It’s never flooded,” Ferrell said in an interview earlier this month. “I’ve been here 15 years. But we have members that have been here all their lives, and they’ve never had as much rain — even during Iniki. So no one ever thought we would flood, or that all three buildings would flood.”

Ferrell said she started getting concerned on Saturday after the bridge between Princeville and Hanalei was closed. A woman who lives across the street from the church started sending her photos of the rising floodwaters, and she realized the church could be in trouble.

On Sunday morning, she was sent more photos of the church. The water had receded, but Ferrell noticed something puzzling.

“We’re looking at these benches — these benches go all the way around the church,” she said pointing to the old wooden pews that line the church’s exterior walls. “So at this point, the water’s already receded, but we’re like, ‘Where are all our benches?’”

Rising floodwaters in the night had carried them like toy boats in a stream. Volunteers found most a few hundred feet away, caught by a wooden fence around the perimeter of the church lawn. One had been swept past Hanalei School, nearly a quarter mile down the road.

“This is the way the water’s supposed to go,” Ferrell said, pointing to a pre-flood photo of drainage lines that run through the church lawn and empty into Waioli Stream. “So what happened was, the stream’s full. The drain’s full. So it just backs up, and it came from the taro fields back behind the mission house.”

On Monday, when the bridge opened back up, Ferrell said she and other members of the congregation came down to Hanalei from their homes in Princeville to assess the damage.

“Our first priority was the church,” she said.

She took a cursory look at the office and auxiliary buildings on the church campus, but decided, “We’ll deal with that later. Let’s make sure the green church is OK.”

She opened the front door of the 184-year-old building and found the floor “caked in mud.” Thick brown sludge carried by floodwaters from nearby taro fields carpeted the wood-plank floor.

“It was so slippery,” Ferrell remembers, pointing out the mud on the legs of the pews, showing that at some point overnight, the water must have stood about four inches deep inside church.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Ferrell said.

But when one person after another showed up unannounced on Tuesday morning asking how they could help, she put them to work.

“Anybody that showed up, we gave them a job,” she said.

It wouldn’t take long before she was almost overwhelmed by the number of people who came to the church wanting to help.

Ferrell called a water remediation expert who agreed to work on the church but told her that before his work could begin, the mud-saturated carpets would have to be removed and the floors would need to be hosed down. Volunteers got busy immediately and even more help was on the way.

“He would kind of tell us what to do, and we would put volunteers on the job,” she said. “And it was amazing that he would tell us to do something, and I would have somebody show up that could do it.”

One of the tasks that had to be done before the professionals could get to work was to clear the muck and debris left piled around the base of the church building. It was a big job, and Ferrell didn’t know who to turn to.

“I’m thinking, I don’t have anybody to do that,” Ferrell remembered. “And somebody showed up and said, “What can I do?’ and I handed him a shovel. There were a lot of blessings through all of this. As horrible as it was, we were just so blessed.”

Ferrell’s fellow parishioners, a group composed primarily of elderly people, were worrying about how they were going to be able to retrieve the heavy wooden benches.

“No way could we bring those benches back from over there,” Ferrell said, pointing across the lawn corner of the property bordered by a white fence, a few hundred feet away.

“But we had somebody call from Kapaa High School and said, ‘We have a football team that wants to do something,’” she said. “So I was like, okay, I know what they’re gonna do.”

The next day, the whole football team, or at least a good portion of it, arrived with the coaches and some of the parents, and Ferrell said they put the benches back in their place in no time, even though it took six of them to carry each one.

Over the next two weeks, Ferrell got more volunteers than she knew what to do with. Every night she made a list of things that needed to be done, not really believing they would ever have the manpower to make it happen.

“We had people from the Westside. The Westside didn’t even know Hanalei had flooding, but once the word got out, Waimea UCC church sent people over. We had people from Lihue come on their days off from work. We had people from the Verizon store show up,” she said.

Little children scrubbed and polished the pews inside the church, while their parents pulled up carpet. Teenagers shoveled mud outside.

“If somebody showed up, and we had all hands doing something, I’d say, ‘Well, go see if somebody else can use some help.’”

She sent leftover volunteers all over the neighborhood, and still people came, wanting to donate their time and anything else they thought flood victims could use.

A Catholic church that was on higher ground and the courthouse across the street from the church became hubs and staging areas for donated food, clothes and personal hygiene products. A computer center was set up at a community center where people who had lost their electronics in the flood could go to fill out forms and take care of paperwork.

“I think Hanalei really did a lot of coming together like that,” Ferrell said.

“We’re still not back to normal,” Ferrell said, laughing, but added that several weeks after the flood, only professional-level repair work remained to be done. “Within a month, we were cleaned up.”

In spite of everything, the church barely missed a beat. Seven days after silt-laden water washed through the hundred-year-old chapel, the congregation gathered under its roof for Sunday service, worshiping over the sound of industrial fans drying out the wood floor.

Without the volunteer workers, the church might never have recovered. The church’s insurance carrier had canceled its flood coverage a year before after finding out the buildings sat on a flood plain. The parishioners got other quotes, but it was simply too expensive.

The church has insurance again.

“If something happens, we’ll just rely on volunteers,” Ferrell said with a shrug. The church received two grants, but the funds were insufficient to pay for all the repairs.

Ferrell said a lot of visitors come to the church and have no idea the floor they are standing on was underwater a year ago.

“We have so many tourists that come here and they don’t know that we flooded. They don’t know about the storm.”

But a close look reveals discoloration on the floor where the carpet used to run down the aisles. Small gaps appear along the edges of some of the stained glass windows, and the doors don’t fit as well as they once did, the product of moisture-warped wood.

The floorboards in the Mission Hall buckled under the mud and floodwater and remain warped and uneven. The church has plans to replace them, but materials and labor are expensive. For now, they hold Sunday school classes in parts of the room where the floor remains relatively even, but the large, open room, which once served as a recreation area, is no longer safe for little children to run and play on.

“That’s what we’re doing now. We’re fundraising, and it’s gonna be a lot of money,” Ferrell explained. “It’s not enough money, but I know it’s gonna come. Because I have faith.”


Editor’s note: This story was changed to reflect that the church does have insurance again.

  1. Ken Conklin April 17, 2019 8:59 am Reply

    Thank you Caleb Loehrer for this splendid and uplifting story. The Aloha Spirit at work! I imagine the same spirit of volunteerism is happening at Notre Dame de Paris after their huge fire.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, send us an email.