SECOND OF THREE PARTS
WAINIHA >> Cyndy Johnson still has vivid memories of the fierce rain bombs that dropped from the sky.
It was a year ago when she tromped through 18 inches of water to warn visitors in the vacation rental next door to flee from the coming danger.
“I said, ‘You know they are bringing in helicopters. You’ve got to get your stuff and get out of here,’” she recalled. “They said, ‘Oh, we thought we’d stay.’”
Johnson said she told them, “‘You’ve got to get out of here. We’re going to barely have enough supplies for the 325 people who live out here.’ They didn’t want to leave. It was insane, like it was some kind of adventure. Meanwhile my dog is like drowning in the front yard. I’ve got water in the house, mud everywhere.”
The April 14-15, 2018, flood washed out Kuhio Highway, the only route into the small communities of Lumahai, Wainiha and Haena. Since then the road has been opened to local residents but not tourists. Now with repairs almost complete, the state plans to reopen Kuhio Highway to all traffic May 1.
The return of tourists to this corner of Kauai has elicited mixed feelings.
Some businesses, mainly those that rely on tourism, need the road to reopen so they can survive. Others in the isolated community don’t want the public highway to reopen, at least not yet.
They worry about the increase in traffic, especially because work is still being done on three bridges in the area: the Waioli, Waipa and Waikoko stream bridges. The state Department of Transportation said that work won’t be finished before June and probably even later.
Opponents of the reopening also hope to delay progress until the state finishes a parking lot at Haena State Park and the Hanalei Initiative starts a shuttle service between Princeville and Haena.
Haena State Park, the gateway to Napali Coast State Wilderness Park and the Kalalau Trail, was drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors a year in a steady stream of cars on Kuhio Highway leading from Hanalei to where the road dead-ends at the Kee Beach portion of the state park. Cars would sometimes be illegally parked along the road for up to 2 miles leading to the dead end.
Many residents see the flood as an opportunity to implement the Haena State Park Master Plan, which was 20 years in the making and seeks to better manage the onslaught of tourists. Almost 1.4 million visitors came to Kauai in 2018, up 8% from the year before, and pumped $2 billion into the island’s economy.
State Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case approved the Haena State Park Master Plan (808ne.ws/masterplan) last year.
Park visitation under the plan would drop to 900 people per day. A 2014 traffic study counted 3,400 cars a day at nearby Haena Beach Park, said Joel Guy, president of the Hanalei-Haena Community Association.
An online system and limited parking would manage state park visitation. Once parking is full at the new 100-spot lot, visitors would be encouraged to take the county-funded shuttle to the site. It’s slated to start running June 4 with multiple stops between Princeville and Kee Beach. Those caught illegally parking would face fines of up to $200 — up from the current $35.
The flood, which stopped tourism overnight, provided an unprecedented opportunity to start anew by implementing the master plan along with a shuttle system that helps limit park visitors and keep their cars in check, Guy said.
“It’s much easier to go from zero tourists a day to 900 a day than from more than 3,000 to 900,” Guy said. “Islands across the state are seeing tourism impacts. We are in a very good position to give it a break. Hopefully, we can be a model for other places. But we need to do this right.”
Like it or not, the state can’t keep tourists from using Kuhio Highway once it is safe to do so.
“We understand the community’s concerns but cannot keep the route closed or limit access to motorists for reasons other than safety,” DOT spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said.
The $77 million in federal funding received by the state to repair the Kuhio Highway route and bridges could be at risk if access to the highway is restricted after emergency repairs are completed, Kunishige said.
“The bridges are considered safe. We will implement traffic control for the bridge rehabilitation and replacements, as we do on similar construction projects statewide,” she said.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Kauai Visitors Bureau asked the state to consider delaying the road’s reopening until the bridges, tourist attractions and tourism management plan are aligned. Even tourism officials from the community’s only hotel, the Hanalei Colony Resort, and a major attraction, Limahuli Garden & Preserve, support waiting.
“We’re mitigating now by telling people, ‘If you care about this special place, please do not send people up to Haena until they can get the park open,’” said Sue Kanoho, Kauai Visitors Bureau executive director. “Everyone has worked so hard to not allow Haena to be swallowed up like it was before.”
An informational traffic checkpoint will advise those without resident placards that the region’s attractions, as well as its public restrooms, haven’t reopened, Kanoho said.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority and KVB, along with the county, will conduct media and visitor outreach, including providing updates on flyers rental car companies can distribute to customers, she said. The state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement will police Haena State Park, Kanoho said.
But some community factions aren’t satisfied with the rationale for the reopening. They’ve threatened civil disobedience to block the road and note that in 2007 Kauai residents successfully stopped the arrival of the Hawaii Superferry on its inaugural run from Oahu to Kauai.
Without authority to stop visitors, an information checkpoint won’t work, said Wainiha resident Juliet Akana.
“Tell them not to come and they’ll want to visit even more,” Akana said. “It’s really too bad the DOT and state parks can’t get on the same page — the tourist infestation is going to flow. Visitors spend thousands to come here. They aren’t going to be stopped by $200 parking tickets or a checkpoint that can’t block them from entering.”
Gray Hayton, who volunteers at the community food pantry, said even with the current ban on nonresidents using Kuhio Highway, he sees dozens of cars without resident stickers drive by.
“Those road-closed signs don’t mean anything to them — those are for other people,” Hayton said.
Louise Sausen, who has lived in Haena for 20 years, said safety is at the heart of the Hawaiian community’s reservations.
“We aren’t trying to keep anybody out,” Sausen said. “But we want it safe for them, too.”