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Dramatic lava eruption draws attention from flood-ravaged Kauai

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Crews clear mud caused by a landslide on Kuhio Highway during the April flooding near Wainiha, Kauai.

It was just April when record-setting rainfall brought devastation to parts of the Garden Isle — flooding and landslides wiped out homes, walls of mud blocked highways and cut off access, and certain neighborhoods were deluged.

An army of volunteers, personnel from other counties, and state crews continue to help rebuild damaged portions of Kauai, especially a 2-mile stretch of Kuhio Highway that was buried by more than a dozen landslides on the north shore, and the nearly isolated communities of Haena and Wainiha.

But it is the spectacular eruption of Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii island that now commands worldwide attention.

Gov. David Ige acknowledges that the public’s focus is clearly on the Lower Puna region of Hawaii island — on the opposite end of the state from Kauai — where lava continues to shoot from the ground and is shown every morning and night on network newscasts around the country.

“There’s just a lot of focus on Hawaii island at this point,” Ige told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser from Kauai last week in a telephone interview, joined by Mayor Bernard Carvalho.

The response to the Kilauea eruption has drawn 45 employees just from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Hawaii island, along with Hawaii National guardsmen and U.S. Marine helicopter crews standing by to perform air evacuations.

“There’s just a huge contingent that is focused on Hawaii island now, even though the work continues here on Kauai,” Ige said.

For people without flood insurance who lost their homes and everything they owned, there is plenty to worry about on Kauai.

A storm April 13-16 pummeled Kauai and parts of Oahu with heavy downpours and left a sea of mud behind. In Waipa, a rain gauge recorded just under 50 inches in a 24-hour period ending midday April 15, possibly setting a U.S. record for rainfall in a 24-hour period.

Gregg Fraser and his Opakapaka Bar and Grill in Haena were cut off from the rest of the island for weeks when Kuhio Highway was buried in mud and debris.

Fraser invested more than half-a-million dollars into the business, which relied on tourists.

Now, with only local residents and repair crews allowed in through a one-lane access carved through Kuhio Highway, Fraser said he’s losing $5,000 to $6,000 per day — and is generating just $100 per day in beverage sales.

The restaurant now feeds children at the makeshift school next door at the Hanalei Colony Resort, which is actually located in Haena.

So Fraser, who is also executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said he believes businesses like his that help out in a time of community need should be eligible for some form of government assistance.

“Businesses gave resources and space to aid,” Fraser said. “Getting something from the government would help.”

Declaration of disaster

An emergency declaration from President Donald Trump appears likely to reimburse Kauai and Honolulu counties for costs to rebuild roads, bridges and public facilities such as parks. But the damage to private homes — while catastrophic to individual homeowners — does not yet meet the federal threshold for reimbursement.

The FEMA threshold is a total of 173 homes destroyed or with major damage on Kauai and Honolulu, said Hiro Toiya, deputy director of Honolulu’s Department of Emergency Management.

Some 381 homes sustained some form of damage just on Kauai. And 70 had “major damage.” Of the 13 additional homes that were destroyed, five were not a primary residence and likely will not count toward the total, said Elston Ushio, Kauai County’s emergency management administrator.

On Oahu, 418 homeowners reported damage, Toiya said, but FEMA’s initial assessment only counted 45. Of the Oahu homes, 97 had “major” damage and another one may have been destroyed, Toiya said.

The bottom line is that the 176 homes that were destroyed or had “major damage” from the storm exceeds FEMA’s threshold of 173, at least by the way Kauai and Honolulu officials count them.

“We think we’re close,” Toiya said. “We continue to work with the governor’s office to see if we can put together a convincing package for an appeal.”

Even if federal funding comes through for property owners, Toiya said homeowners should not expect new houses.

Whatever money they might receive if an appeal is granted, Toiya said, “It’s not going to put people whole. It’s not going to be enough money to rebuild a home that’s had major damage.”

Quiana Quinn hopes the on-going disaster on Hawaii island might convince Donald Trump and FEMA that Kauai homeowners like her should get enough financial assistance to rebuild.

“Maybe the president will see the Big Island disaster and Kauai flooding and realize that we need help,” Quinn said.

She and her fiance, Dustin Pagador, did not have flood insurance for their home on Waihohonu Road in Koloa that suddenly filled with chest-high water in the early morning of April 15.

As the water receded and morning came, their house — situated in the southwest in a community with deep plantation roots — was left buried in ankle-deep mud.

Quinn and Pagador had been planning their wedding when their lives were thrown into chaos. Six weeks later, they’re still living in the Lawai Beach Resort and have no idea how they’ll be able to afford to rebuild.

“I’m taking it day by day,” Quinn said.

But they’re still planning their wedding and hope to be married next April, a year after the flood. And Quinn said the hardship is bringing them closer.

“Things happen for a reason,” she said.

Coverage backlash

Ige and tourism officials worry about the effects that all of the coverage of natural disasters have had, first on Kauai and now on Hawaii island.

So he and Mayor Carvalho were quick to point out that Kauai is welcoming visitors.

Other than Wainiha, Haena and a few businesses in nearby Hanalei, “the entire rest of Kauai is open for business,” Ige said.

The flood caused an initial 10 to 15 percent drop in tourism because visitors did not realize that most of the Garden Isle remained accessible, said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau.

“People don’t understand the geography, which is hurtful,” she said.

At the same time, Kauai is now seeing a bump in traffic because other tourists are now diverting from Hawaii island.

Ige also tried to calm visitors’ concerns on Friday when the Hawaii Tourism Authority issued a press release quoting Ige and state Health Director Dr. Virginia Pressler about air quality from the on-going volcanic eruption.

“The air quality for the vast majority of the Hawaiian Islands is clean and healthy,” Pressler said in a statement. “… The areas where precautions are required for people are in Lower Puna where lava is flowing and downwind from there on the island of Hawaii, particularly if they have respiratory problems.”

Ige said in a statement that Hawaii’s air quality is being monitored by scientists, meteorologists and the state Department of Health who say “the air quality in the Hawaiian Islands is safe for residents and visitors, except in the affected areas.”

But individual residents still recovering from the floods on Kauai aren’t worrying about things like keeping Hawaii on a record pace for tourism.

Bomun Bock-Chung, a builder who grew up in Wainiha, lost his work equipment including trucks and tractors.

His biggest concern is “finding enough income to pay the mortgage,” Bock-Chung said. “It will take people a couple of months to adjust to a new way of living.”

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