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Hawaii County struggles with impact of 3 days of epic rainfall

  • (Video by Tracey Niimi)

    Drone footage showed flooding at Pauahi Street and Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo near Bayfront Highway. Rain from Hurricane Lane flooded parts of the Big Island.


    Three visitors surveyed Hilo’s flooded bayfront and soccer field Friday after Hurricane Lane dumped over 30 inches of rain on Hawaii island.

HILO >> East Hawaii on Friday endured a third day of epic rainfall from what was Hurricane Lane, flooding highways, severing power to homes across Hawaii island and overwhelming three sewage pump stations around Hilo Bay, triggering raw sewage spills at all three sites.

Dozens of residents in the Hilo neighborhoods of Piihonua and Reed’s Island had to be evacuated Thursday night as rushing flood- waters rose to alarming levels, prompting calls for assistance from both residents and tourists.

Mayor Harry Kim expressed frustration with the sluggish progress of the storm, which had slowed to 5 mph or less Friday as it passed west of Hawaii island. The slow crawl gave the storm system more time to dump rain on an already saturated island.

“East side, I don’t want any more rescues,” Kim said Friday. “Everybody just stay home, OK?”

Flooding of the upscale Reed’s Island neighborhood in Hilo prompted the evacuation of about 40 people and closed an array of roads across East Hawaii as the plodding storm dumped enormous amounts of rain on windward portions of the island.

Measurements of the thumping rainfall in East Hawaii show that Hakalau had a deluge of 33.7 inches of rain during the 48 hours ending at 10 a.m. Friday.

Data from the National Weather Service show Hilo airport saw 19.95 inches of rainfall over the same 48-hour period, while a rain gauge at Waiakea Experimental station outside of Hilo recorded 28.44 inches from Wednesday morning to Friday morning. A rain gauge at Honokaa recorded 29.28 inches of rainfall.

One of the evacuees from Reed’s Island was 9-year-old Matthew Crawford, who with his parents was suited up in a life jacket and floated out of a Hilo vacation rental after floodwaters isolated the property where they were staying.

“It was a little scary, and then again it was a little strange,” he said. “The water was coming from all these different places.”

Matthew and his parents, Marilyn and William, checked into the house overlooking a waterfall and the Wailuku River on Tuesday with two family friends in their first visit to Hilo.

“It was just lovely and then the rain started,” said Rebecca Thompson, a friend who was staying at the vacation rental with the Crawfords.

The river swelled and roared, four new waterfalls suddenly appeared on the slopes near the house and an impressive new “river” appeared on what had been a lawn area next to the house. “So, we had water to the left of us, to the right of us and in the driveway.”

The owner of the property called the Fire Department, and fire officials urged the group to evacuate, Thompson said. The Crawfords and their friends, who are all from the Los Angeles area, were each floated off the property in life vests with the help of a team of firefighters and a rope, and were taken to a hotel.

“It was quite an experience, but Hilo people have been absolutely wonderful,” Thompson said. With the continuing rain, the water was still too high Friday for the Crawfords and guests to retrieve their luggage and rental car.

Runoff from the heavy rain overwhelmed the Paukaa, Wailuku and Puhi Bay sewage pump stations Friday, but the Paukaa station was a special concern because the spill was on land, Kim said. Crews were on the scene working to isolate that spill, he said, while the others released sewage into the ocean.

Kim said no estimates were available of the size of each spill.

Kristen Okinaka, spokeswoman for Hawaii Electric Light Co., said about 9,500 homes and businesses lost power since heavy rain began to pummel the island Wednesday, and power problems escalated as the weather worsened Thursday and Friday. Most of the problems were caused by trees or limbs falling on power lines, but Okinaka said power had been restored to all but about 60 customers by Friday evening.

The cross-island Daniel K. Inouye Highway, better known as Saddle Road, was closed at the 10.5 mile marker Thursday evening after flooding caused a landslide that dumped rocks and debris on the roadway. The road reopened shortly before 6:30 a.m. Friday morning.

Highway 19, the major artery between Hilo and Waimea, was also closed after landslides and flooding severed the road at a half-dozen points along the Hamakua Coast. Waianuenue Avenue was also closed above Akolea Road for a time Wednesday, cutting off a residential neighborhood above Hilo.

With rain still pouring down in Hilo on Friday night, police announced only one lane of Akoni Pule Highway in North Kohala was open because of a landslide, while North and South Kulani roads in Puna were closed because of severe flooding. Police urged motorists to stay home if at all possible.

“Until further notice the rains will continue,” Mayor Harry Kim told his staff at a briefing in Hilo. “What else do you need to know?”

The county opened 11 evacuation shelters on the island, but only 16 people remained in the shelters as of late Friday afternoon.

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