Two weeks after a powerful rainstorm forced the Wailuku River to jump its banks and fill up his home with mud and debris, Wayne Wong remains on edge, his ravaged dwelling now sitting dangerously close to a newly widened riverbed.
Neighbor Lisa Higa says she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by memories of that harrowing night, when rising floodwaters drove her kids and mother to the roof of their home, while she desperately tried to rescue them.
“They’re afraid to go home,” Higa says. “They’re afraid the river will come again.”
Kainoa Horcajo’s cottage now sits precariously on the edge of a newly created 20-foot cliff, carved out by stormwaters that washed away acres of topsoil, crops, lawn and trees.
Neighbors along the river are still coping with the aftermath of the Sept. 13 flood that ripped through Iao Valley, forcing the evacuation of 20 homes and causing an estimated
$15 million in damage to public facilities.
Featuring a couple of parks, towering canyon walls and the dramatic Iao Needle pinnacle, the narrow valley above Wailuku is one of Maui’s top tourist attractions.
But for now it’s closed to the public. Late last week the Army and Air National Guard were called in to assist with the cleanup, and federal officials joined Maui County and state officials, including Gov. David Ige, for an inspection both on the ground and in the air.
What Ige saw was a brand new riverbed — widened and moved more than 100 feet in some areas, strewn with felled trees and shrubs, huge boulders and piles of mud. Parking lots, roads and trails at Iao Valley State Monument and Kepaniwai Park were damaged and undermined.
Further down, taro patches, native gardens, agricultural plots and large chunks of land were swept away.
Ige asked President Barack Obama to make an emergency declaration in an effort to free up federal funds to help pay for the damaged public works, including key water facilities that serve Wailuku and Kahului.
The residents, meanwhile, are anxious about what might come next, fearful that additional rain falling on saturated earth will generate more flooding.
The neighbors say they feel like they are in limbo, wanting to protect their properties from the river but unsure how to proceed because of federal regulations governing what repairs and activities can be accomplished within a public waterway.
Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency with jurisdiction over the river, met briefly with some of the hardest-hit homeowners last week, urging them to do what they can to protect their property.
But there was talk of permits and guidelines, and some of the homeowners expressed uncertainty about what is legal and what is not.
“No one wants to do something and then have them sue you for misplacing a boulder or overstepping your bounds as an individual citizen,” Horcajo said.
On the evening of Sept. 13 Wong and his wife, Flora, didn’t need to see the river to know something was horribly wrong. They could hear the roar.
“The river was raging in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Wong, 65, director of Maui’s Small Business Development Center.
The husband and wife decided they would need to evacuate, taking Flora’s 92-year-old dad with them. But first they went downstairs on a mission to save some of their belongings.
They found 2 to 3 inches of water on the floor.
“That was the first shock,” he said. “We were literally down there for only a couple of minutes before I looked at the sliding glass door and there was 3 feet of water.”
Wong heard the sliding glass door creaking and bending.
“I yelled at my wife: ‘We have to get out.’ But before I finished the sentence, the sliding glass door exploded and we were now chest deep in swirling black water.”
Out in the hallway, the gushing water broke open the bottom of a bedroom door and Flora was sucked into the room with river water up to her waist. The woman began feeling around in the darkness and thought she found a table. It turned out to be the broken door.
“She took a deep breath, dived under and luckily she showed up back in the hallway,” Wong said.
They rushed upstairs, where they decided to grab a few things and head out immediately. He glanced at the carport only to discover all three cars were gone, swept away by the violent flood.
Minutes later the couple and the father would be rescued by Maui Fire Department personnel.
Next door, the rising water trapped Lisa Higa’s 74-year-old mother, 10-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, while she was dropping off her 13-year-old son at judo class 10 minutes away.
Her children were frantically calling her, urging her to come home — and that’s what she did.
“They were screaming and crying, ‘Help me, help me!’ And I told them to get to the roof.”
When Higa arrived at her Iao Valley Road home, she tried to drive her minivan into the driveway, but her car went underwater and she was nearly swept away.
Higa reversed to safety but was still talking to the kids on the phone, urging them to get to the roof. Her 11-year-old son put on a life jacket, and also put them on his younger sister and his grandmother and they escaped to the roof, where they endured the heavy downpour until fire personnel were able to rescue them.
Higa, remembering the episode with her husband, Stephen, by her side, became emotional, saying she’s lucky her family is alive. She said the disaster offered a new perspective on life.
“The most valuable thing I ever had was sitting right in front of me and it never cost me a penny,” she said tearfully.
Horcajo, who lives near the entrance of the valley, said neighbors who live on the river remain in danger and are fearful of the potential for loss of property and life from the next storm.
Horcajo, who works as a Hawaiian cultural ambassador at the Grand Wailea hotel and co-star of the TV show “Search Hawaii,” noted that the hurricane season will continue for two more months, followed by the winter wet season. Puu Kukui, the summit of the West Maui Mountains, is one of the wettest places on earth, receiving more than 400 inches of rain annually.
“To expect that the storm event is over is just silly and irresponsible. We’re definitely not out of danger yet,” he said.
“And that’s why we need to get in the river and reinforce the banks, remove the debris and keep it flowing where it’s supposed to be,” said Horcajo, married and father of a newborn. “I wanna be living here, to farm, to grow taro and be connected to this land.”
County officials said the Sept. 13 rainfall totals, while much greater than normal, were not especially exceptional and don’t necessarily explain what could have caused such violent flooding that evening. Perhaps, they said, it was the saturated ground following weeks of wet weather.
Horcajo said he has an idea why it happened. In historical times, the Hawaiian community would come together to remove debris from the river to allow it to follow its path without creating undue flooding.
“We haven’t been doing that because of this weird jurisdictional issue (involving the Army Corps). That’s something we need to do again.”
In addition, he said, non-native species have invaded and dominated the hillsides of Iao, reducing the natural sponge effect of a healthy native Hawaiian forest.
“It would have been way less severe,” Horcajo said of the storm. “A little more native plants would have gone a long way to reducing the severity.”
Over the past two weeks the Iao neighbors have rallied to help each other. Among other things, Horcajo has created a crowdfunding page to raise money for families in need: youcaring.com/all-families-who-live-along-wailuku-river-in-iao-valley-649540. The effort has already accumulated more than $11,000.
But Wong figures it’ll take at least $250,000 to revive his mud-and-waterlogged dwelling.
“It was such a treat to call State Farm after this and hear they won’t cover any of it,” he said.
Iao Valley, he was told, is not in the U.S. flood zone, so flood insurance is not required, nor is it even available.
“My agent said I would have lucked out had a tree fell on the house,” he said.
Wong said if there’s a bright side, the storm brought the neighborhood closer together. The support the couple has received from neighbors has been uplifting.
“Even though we knew each other, we really know each other now,” he said. “It’s because we have a common cause. We want to stay here. We really don’t want to leave.”