It’s certainly appropriate that ocean safety on Kaua‘i has become a back-burner issue, given all the crises that are on the front burner: Namely the pandemic and the crushing implications it has had on so many facets of life on Kaua‘i: Devastation to businesses large and small; loss of in-person school learning and peer socializing; loss of school sports; homelessness; depression/anxiety; loneliness of our kupuna who are in care homes — to mention just a few.
At the same time, with visitor counts drastically down and with visitors representing a large number of our beach-goers and 75% of our drownings, our beach-goers are way down and our drownings in 2020 were way down. Instead of the 18 drownings we suffered in 2019, we suffered four in 2020. I don’t intend to minimize the tragedy of the four, and I extend my condolences to their families.
You might conclude that a once-huge problem has become one of many reasonably-manageable problems that we face here on Kaua‘i, one that we can deal with thanks to our strong county Ocean Safety Bureau, aka lifeguards. The hooker, of course, is that when we do open up and when visitors return, the number of beach-goers who are unaware of our beach hazards and currents will soar, and our number of drowning victims will again soar. Any one whose experience involves contact with these drowning victims and their families, be it personally or professionally, knows how sickening and tragic these untimely deaths are.
The Ocean Safety Bureau is staffed and trained and prepared for Kaua‘i re-opening to visitors with one troublesome exception: Ke‘e State Beach Park.
A brief history on Ke‘e: The state doesn’t employ lifeguards. Around 15 years ago they made the decision to guard Ke‘e (and other State Park beaches in the other counties), and the mechanism they used to achieve this was to give money to Kaua‘i County so that the county could post and fill the 4.5 lifeguard positions required to guard Ke‘e.
There were some legal/liability hoops to be jumped through, but ever since the lifeguards have been in place we have had zero drownings at Ke‘e Beach.
This is a beach where prior to lifeguards we had drownings take place regularly — due to very-heavy usage in an often-placid-appearing lagoon, but a lagoon which harbors a subtle rip current that pulls unsuspecting swimmers and snorkelers to their death in the open ocean.
Additionally, the Ke‘e lifeguards, being positioned as they are at the Kalalau trail-head, have been directly and indirectly (i.e. with preventive actions and public contacts) involved with multiple lives saved along this world-advertised trail.
A year ago, just as government budgets were tightening up because of the COVID-19 writing on the wall, the state quietly de-funded the 4.5 Ke‘e positions, as well as the analogous positions in the other three Hawai‘i counties. This didn’t cause a public and bargaining-union outcry since the state wasn’t really terminating state-employed personnel. (And we witnessed the outcry when the mere mention of furloughs for state employees took place).
Kaua‘i was blessed with the fact that Mayor Kawakami and our County Council committed to maintain the lifeguard service at Ke‘e through 6/30/21. (Note: This didn’t happen in the other three counties. Their state beach parks are now unguarded).
However, 6/30/21 looms. County and Ocean Safety Bureau officials are aware of what might happen, and as I write they are trying to “juggle” the county budget so as to allow for continued Ke‘e coverage.
I’m writing this in order (a) to thank our county officials for their decision to continue Ke‘e coverage through 6/30/21, and (b) to wish them wisdom and Godspeed as they do the juggling which hopefully will allow for continued Ke‘e lifeguard coverage.
Lives and deaths were and are and will be at stake.
Monty Downs, M.D., is a Wilcox Medical Center emergency-room physician and former president and current secretary of the Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association.