WAINIHA >> A herd of wild boars lives in the Wainiha home formerly occupied by Pa‘ula Chandler, who was displaced a year ago today when up to 50 inches of rain was dumped over a period of 16 hours on Kauai’s rural north shore communities.
Since Chandler left, nature has taken over her Wainiha home. A jungle of greenery filled a neighboring lot after the home was swept downstream.
“The trickle stream got so big,” said Chandler. “Rushing, raging water took out the driveway. Rain got into the house.”
Last year’s flooding was Kauai’s worst disaster since Hurricane Iniki struck the island more than 25 years ago. Over 350 homes were destroyed or damaged. A dozen landslides forced the closure of a 2-mile stretch of Kuhio Highway, cutting off the communities of Lumahai, Wainiha and Haena.
Preliminary damage to public property was estimated at about $20 million, with an estimated $77 million required to shore up Kuhio Highway. The county’s cost were in the millions for debris removal. There was also significant damage to roads and culverts.
The storm, which set a national rainfall record, is a reminder of why Hawaiians named this area Wainiha, or “unfriendly waters.”
“The place-name was intended to reflect that it’s a common thing for Wainiha River to flood and destroy everything in its path,” said Chandler’s nephew, Kame‘aloha Forrest, kumu hula for Halau Hula‘o Ke‘alalaua‘eomakana.
“There were major floods here in the 1870s and 1880s. My great-grandparents were part of the original hui that settled here during the kingdom era,” said Forrest, who grew up in Chandler’s Powerhouse Road home. “The people that live here know what they are getting into, but it would be unthinkable to move. You can’t just leave home no matter how crazy it is.”
A year after the historic rains, the angry water has departed. Also gone are tourist cars that used to bring thousands daily to Haena State Park, where the road dead ends into Kee Beach, the gateway for the popular Napali Coast State Wilderness Park and Kalalau Trail.
Piles of abandoned community cars have replaced the steady stream of rental cars — a monument to the suspended momentum that has plagued the community since landslides and unforgiving water destroyed life as they knew it.
Some residents have adapted to the new normal. They’ve repaired their homes, found new cars and counted their blessings, especially since no one died in the flood.
Kuhio Highway is set to reopen to nonresidents as soon as May 1.
The struggle continues
While there has been progress, many residents are still struggling, especially with housing, transportation, work and health.
Gray Hayton, a volunteer with The Church of the Pacific, said even now the community food pantry at Belinda Chandler’s home distributes about 2,000 pounds of food a week to some 80 or 90 people.
While only 25 Kauai residents qualified for about $55,000 in benefits from the state’s disaster unemployment assistance program, jobs in the formerly visitor-dependent region have become scarce.
Wainiha General Store is still open. However, a dramatic reduction in visitor traffic has resulted in staffing cutbacks and limited inventory. It’s flanked by two businesses that closed.
Main tourist attractions such as the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Limahuli Garden & Preserve and Haena State Park, which is adding a parking lot and boardwalk and making other improvements, won’t be ready for visitors until June.
“My own driveway was a river. The rain was the worst that we’d ever seen,” said Charles “Chipper” Wichman Jr., a fifth-generation Haena resident. “Instead of visitors our parking lot at Limahuli is now full of construction equipment. It’s been quite a recovery.”
The region’s only hotel, the Hanalei Colony Resort, won’t reopen until at least December. The hotel’s Hanalei Day Spa is still closed and its Opakapaka Grill and Bar and the adjacent Napali Art Gallery and Coffee House have limited service. Legal vacation rentals in the area, 86 are registered with the county, won’t be allowed to house visitors until Kuhio Highway reopens to all traffic.
“Within a week of the April flood, the state Legislature had allocated $100 million for the recovery of Kauai, but very little of the money has been able to find its way into nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations,” Wichman said.
Sarah Blane, chief of staff for Kauai Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami, said the county received only $25 million of the $100 million allotment. The remainder of the funds were used by the state for infrastructure such as the repairs at Haena State Beach Park and Kuhio Highway, Blane said.
Kauai County spokeswoman Kim Tamaoka said the county used its portion of the legislative appropriation to complete 24 projects. Twenty-one other county projects are in progress but seven of those can’t be completed until Kuhio Highway reopens, Tamaoka said.
The Hawaii Community Foundation released more than $1.9 million to 26 nonprofits for Kauai recovery efforts.
“A year later, while we have seen tremendous progress, there may be folks that missed some of the aid that was distributed early on or weren’t able to qualify and are still dealing with the aftermath of the flood,” said Darcie Yukimura, the foundation’s director of community philanthropy. “We are still seeing people in what we might call an immediate crisis state.”
Wichman said that, fortunately, Limahuli Garden & Preserve received pledges of $92,000 in county and $500,000 in state support. It also received $400,000 from foundations, and 600 individual donors contributed a combined $300,000.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided Kauai with nearly $5 million in total public assistance grants, including $10,000 for Limahuli Garden. FEMA also distributed $1.6 million to individuals and households, assisting 251 people. But FEMA approved only about 44 percent of the 566 individual applicants — denying 315 people, including Chandler, whose home is now overrun by wild boars.
Megan Wong said she and other volunteers who call themselves the Old Hanalei Courthouse Hui went door to door to assist Kauai residents with FEMA applications but were frustrated by how few received federal aid.
“Most everyone was immediately denied. It was especially frustrating for people like Chandler, who didn’t have electricity or internet. It was hard to get them to reapply,” Wong said.
FEMA also denied Wainiha resident Juliet Akana, a single mom with a 14-year-old autistic son, Kekai. Akana said she and others have grown ill dealing with the stress of trying to recover from the flood, which filled their cars and homes with mold.
“People are dying — from stress I think. These were people who already had ailments. These were people that were already fighting,” said Akana. “My health has failed as well. When FEMA told me ‘no,’ I didn’t have the energy to reapply.”
Wong said at least 15 families are still living in substandard housing. She also knows people who remain in the tent city the evangelical nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse erected at Haena State Park or in tents on private property. Finding replacement property has been difficult in the community, which over the last few years of growing tourism has lost most of its affordable housing to vacation rentals.
“There are people living with these problems or in tents because even after all this time, they’ve got nowhere else to go,” Wong said.