Wailuku >> Flood-ravaged Iao Valley is slowly recovering three weeks after a raging storm caused the Wailuku River to jump its banks, but the narrow canyon and its residents remain vulnerable as hundreds of tons of debris remain strewn across a newly carved and unpredictable riverbed.
“The problem is the next big storm is basically going to push all of this downstream,” Maui County Managing Director Keith Regan said Tuesday.
Regan was pointing to a mass of trees, brush and boulders piled just below the county’s Kepaniwai Park. To his right were several large earth-moving machines, hired by the county, to move rocks and take away debris.
“The National Weather Service, the U.S. (Geological Survey) is telling us we have no idea what this river is going to do the next time there’s a big storm,” Regan said. “It’s critical that we do as much as we can now.”
In the week following the Sept. 13 storm, the National Guard removed about 327 tons of debris from Iao Valley.
“There’s probably four times that still in the river,” Regan said Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, a Hawaiian blessing was held at Iao Valley State Monument, kicking off a $300,000-plus project to remove tons of debris, broken concrete and asphalt from the 6.5-acre park visited by hundreds of thousands of people annually.
“If we do what’s right up here, hopefully something positive will go downstream,” Kahu Alalani Hill told a group of 60 residents, workers and government officials at the formal blessing.
“But it will take some time to heal,” Hill said of the river. “She will flow as she flows.”
On the night of Sept. 13, the valley and its river were overwhelmed by waters that surged from a rate of under 100 million gallons per day to an estimated 3 billion gallons per day.
Iao Valley State Monument was swamped. Concrete walkways, pedestrian bridges and the parking lot were either damaged or destroyed. Floodwaters cut into a nearly vertical cliff below the parking lot, eating away 20 feet of grassy park and undermining the cliff’s stability.
The violent flood swept away trees and large boulders from the original riverbed and sent them hurtling into a new waterway that doubled and tripled in width in some areas.
The state debris removal project, estimated to last from six to eight weeks, is the first phase in the effort to bring back to life a park featuring the iconic Iao Needle pinnacle. Long-term design and construction plans will include stabilizing the parking lot.
Larry Pacheco, Maui branch manager for the Division of State Parks, said it will take four to six months to reopen the park, depending on the weather. Estimated costs range from $6 million to $15 million.
In the meantime the state is losing about $20,000 a month in parking fees, he said.
Regan estimated that it would take six to eight months to reopen the county’s Kepaniwai Park, with the first priority of stabilizing another parking lot undermined by floodwaters. He said total costs are estimated in excess of $10 million.
“We’re trying to get that park open as soon as possible,” Regan said. “Kepaniwai is a heavily utilized park by the community. However, it is extremely dangerous right now.”
Elsewhere in the valley, workers were trying to re-establish a pipeline in the river that had diverted 3 million gallons a day for public use in Central Maui. The pipes were washed away in the storm.
Regan said the county has the capacity to make up for the water shortage. “But if something else were to happen (to the water system), there would be a shortage. We’ve asked the community for voluntary conservation but nothing mandatory at this point.”
Meanwhile, officials are still waiting for President Barack Obama to sign their request for an emergency declaration to free up federal funds.
Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa called the cleanup and restoration effort “one of the most difficult projects the county has worked on” because of the restrictions and requirements needed for working in a waterway.
“There’s a steep learning curve,” he said, adding that officials are running into a number of rules and policies that aren’t ordinarily required of them.
Also swept away by floodwaters were gauges used to record water levels in the valley. County contractors have been cautioned to keep an eye on the stream for rising waters, Regan said.
“We were very, very fortunate we didn’t lose any lives,” he said. “The power of this river was incredible. You see rocks and boulders that weigh four or five thousand pounds that were tossed around like children’s toys. That kind of power has the ability to cause significant damage, as it did, and we’re just blessed that no one was seriously injured.”
Several Iao Valley residents who were hit hard by the storm attended Tuesday’s blessing. Lisa Higa said the remediation of her riverside home is coming along nicely with the help of friends, neighbors and community members.
Friends and volunteers helped clean out her house over a three-day period, she said. Friends and acquaintances in the construction business brought fans, excavators, forklifts and other equipment, along with offers to drywall and paint the house. Others brought food, money, shoes and other donations.
“They refuse to take a penny from us,” Higa said. “It’s an overwhelming feeling for how much the community has come out to help us. This tragedy brought out the good in everybody.”
She said her family should be able to move back into their house in a couple of weeks.
Wayne Wong, another resident forced from his home, said he and his wife returned to live in the upstairs level of their house Monday night.
“But it’s still like camping,” he said. “Blowers are everywhere. It’s pretty rough.”
He said he and his wife, Flora, don’t feel as threatened by the river as they did in the first couple of weeks after the flood. He said the river appears to have stabilized away from the dwelling.