WAILUKU >> Flood-ravaged Iao Valley is slowly coming back to life six months after powerful stormwater forced evacuations, swept cars and massive boulders downstream and shut down the two parks that help make this spectacular canyon one of Maui’s most popular visitor destinations.
But the valley isn’t coming to life fast enough for Allan Ornellas.
The former construction professional and semiretired farmer said Monday that sales at his roadside fruit stand in front of his Iao Valley Road house are only a third of what they were before the Sept. 13 storm.
“This is how I pay my property taxes,” said Ornellas, who was hawking bananas, smoothies and freshly baked banana bread to the few tourists who found their way to the valley Monday. “I need those parks to open, but they just keep giving me excuses.”
Public officials insist they are working as fast as they can to reopen the flood- damaged parks. County officials said they’re hoping to reopen Kepaniwai Park in the next few months, while the state is aiming to allow the public into Iao Valley State Monument by June.
County officials in October estimated it would take six to eight months to reopen Kepaniwai, crippled by raging waters that undermined the parking lot. At the time, total costs were estimated to exceed $10 million.
At Iao Valley State Monument, which also endured millions of dollars in damage, emergency funding led to cleanup and restoration operations within weeks of the flood.
This week a contractor is working to stabilize a severely eroded bank, using a crane to lower a platform on which workers — armed with high-powered hoses — are blasting the cliff with concrete over 400 feet of stream bank.
The effort is part of a $1.8 million first phase, officials said, to be followed by another phase that might cost upward of $6 million.
“We’ve got several options we’re looking at,” Larry Pacheco, state parks superintendent for the Maui District, said Monday. “We want to make it as natural as possible. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
One problem, however, is that people keep trying to visit the park even though signs warn them not to, Pacheco said. The park is hazardous in its current condition, he said, and it’s gotten even worse now that heavy equipment is operating there.
Down the road, Kay Moazed, a tourist from Danville, Calif., said she and her family were disappointed to be turned away from the Iao parks.
“We were all hyped up to come here because we love it,” she said, adding that they visit each time they return to the Valley Isle. But Moazed said she understood that the valley needed to recover.
“Plenty of people get off the boat or plane and the first place they want to come is here. It’s the people’s park,” said Ornellas at the fruit stand.
Ornellas, whose family has lived in Iao for 30 years, paused to remember the night of Sept. 13, when officials estimated the waters of Iao surged from a rate of under 100 million gallons per day to an estimated 3 billion gallons per day.
“I was so scared. It was unreal,” he said.
Ornellas had left his property that evening to go to his home in Wailuku. That’s when his daughter began pounding on the door, saying police were clearing out the residents of the valley.
He jumped into his car and drove as quickly as he could to the valley only to find all hell breaking loose.
“All you could hear (in the dark) was the thunder of the boulders coming down,” he recalled.
Armed with a flashlight, he found his Dodge pickup within 4 feet of falling into the angry river. Rocks and debris were piled up on one side. He risked his life to get into the vehicle and drive it away from the rising water.
The river was carving a new path and carrying away trees, boulders and debris just upstream, he said. He lost 60 feet of river frontage, plus two structures, equipment and a $50,000 excavator that was picked up by the floodwaters and carried a quarter-mile away.
His home, on higher ground closer to the road, remained dry.
Ornellas said Monday he remains in awe of the power of the river. On Dec. 31 another storm caused another large chunk of embankment to disappear.
He said he doesn’t let his grandchildren play around the stream anymore when the back of the valley is obscured by clouds.
Down the road, Lisa Higa and her family survived the flood, but not without plenty of flood damage to their Iao Valley Road house.
“When something like this happens, it’s so unexpected,” Higa said Monday. “It taught us to appreciate life more, to appreciate the people who helped us.”
Friends and volunteers helped clean out their house over a three-day period after the flood. Friends and acquaintances in the construction business brought fans, backhoes and forklifts along with offers to drywall and paint. Others brought food, money, shoes and other donations.
“We are so grateful,” she said.
Higa said that every time it rains now she worries.
“You can’t help but think of everything all over again,” she said.