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Homes, emotions devastated

The small Kealakekua Bay community is the worst hit of all the Big Isle's damaged areas

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 8:31 a.m. HST, Mar 12, 2011

KEALAKEKUA BAY, Hawaii » Residents of this small community in West Hawaii returned home yesterday to what they described as a "war zone," where destructive waves had pulled one home into the ocean, pushed another 20 feet off its foundation and tossed cars into the water, against trees and atop stone walls as if they were toys.

There was a lot of grief in the small, tight-knit neighborhood about 30 minutes from Kona, as at least seven families — some of whom have lived on the same parcel for generations — realized their homes were severely damaged or destroyed.

But there were also tears of gratitude: Thank goodness everyone evacuated. Thank goodness no one stayed behind.

There are things worse than losing a house, said Shane Nelsen, standing in front of his cousin's home, which had been ripped from its foundations by the waves. Yesterday it stood lopsided and crumpled — in the neighbor's backyard.

"We've just got to move forward," Nelsen said. "Now is the time for us to come together."

The most destructive waves, residents say, came in at about 5 a.m. yesterday, sweeping through the community with enough force to pull a three-story, five-bedroom home into the ocean.

The rooftop of that home, whose owner is on the mainland, was visible in Kealakekua Bay for much of the day.

Seven other homes were flooded, and initial reports indicated wave heights of 11 to 12 feet in the bay, said Ed Teixeira, vice director of state Civil Defense. Nine cars were flooded with one dragged into the bay, he added.

The small community — residents call it a village — was by far the hardest hit by the tsunami that started rolling in early yesterday, though there was also hefty damage to several hotels and businesses along the water in Kona.

Civil Defense officials said it was far too early to make damage estimates but assured residents that they would try to lend assistance in any way possible.

As at Kealakekua Bay, the scene at some shoreline stretches of Kailua-Kona yesterday was one of cleanup, as store owners and hotel employees surveyed the damage.

The tsunami pushed more than a foot of water into the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, which had recently been remodeled, breaking windows, rushing through businesses and leaving the lobby and meeting rooms under a layer of muck and water.

Tani Golden, owner of Beaches Resort Wear in the hotel, got to her shop to find just about everything wet.

There was a thick layer of sand on her carpet. A refrigerator in the break room was pushed on its side. And she scoured the hotel yesterday looking for the dresses and swimwear from her shop, which were found as far away as the parking garage on the other side of the hotel.

Golden, who estimates she has lost more than $50,000 in merchandise, said she could do little more than cry when she saw the mess. "I just felt I had been torn apart," she said.

At nearby Alii Place there was widespread damage to businesses, the road and a walking promenade (which was partially swept away).

The area reopened at about 4:30 p.m., and pretty soon, residents started streaming in to see the damage themselves. "I just can't believe it," said resident Tom Elsey, surveying the damage at the hotel. His wife, Heidi, said the destruction was "very wrong."

"This has just been overwhelming," she said.

As the sun set at Kealakekua Bay yesterday, many residents struggled to keep their emotions in check while trying to figure out how to tackle such an enormous cleanup.

"I keep on thinking it's a bad dream, to come down here and see everything gone," said Tasha Shanahan. "This is our life. This is our family."

During a break from picking up debris, Shanahan hugged her daughter close — the wreckage of their family home behind them — and told her not to cry. It would be OK, Shanahan reassured her.

Shanahan's father, Gordon Leslie, built the home room by room. Their family has been in the community for generations, and Shanahan and her children grew up there.

Gordon Leslie probably would have been there yesterday, too, digging out alongside relatives. But the 62-year-old is on Oahu, getting treatment for cancer.

Shanahan's eyes got red when she talked about how her father would react to seeing his home — his family's home — now nothing more than a gnarled collection of wood and stone. "It is absolutely devastating," she said.

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