Kauai hotel serves as heartbeat of tourism-resistant community
Laura Richards, the Hanalei Colony Resort’s general manager, felt fear in April 2018 when a historic flood ravaged Kauai’s north shore.
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WAINIHA, Kauai >> Laura Richards, the Hanalei Colony Resort’s general manager, felt fear in April 2018 when a historic flood ravaged Kauai’s north shore, compromising the safety of her family and guests.
The flood, which rendered the resort virtually inoperable, also damaged her home and destroyed her family’s cars. It caused Richards to worry that her brother, Elmo Hicks, who was sleeping in a bedroom under her house, had drowned in the 5 feet of water that inundated parts of the property.
“I remember going down the stairs and all of the sudden I had water up to my chest. I was in shock and very scared for Elmo,” Richards said. “Luckily, his bedroom had only taken on 8 inches of water, and we were able to rescue him.”
Richards and her staff at the Hanalei Colony Resort, the only hotel between Princeville and Haena, also rescued many others and became the heartbeat of a community that always has had a complicated relationship with tourism.
While the community’s economy is dependent on the visitor industry, major growth in arrivals has raised concerns about over-tourism.
The resort was at full occupancy when flooding on April 14 and 15, 2018, created major landslides and knocked out roads and utilities. Without electricity or water, the resort took care of its guests until they were rescued by boat or helicopter.
It also took in over 300 community members as well as stranded visitors who were visiting the region on day trips or lodging at vacation rentals. For weeks after, resort employees also gathered and sent luggage to guests who were stranded outside the community.
Later the resort became a temporary public school, a hospital, a veterinary clinic, a food pantry and a meeting place. It wasn’t open to tourists, but it housed government officials, emergency workers and volunteers.
The resort is still running the town’s only coffee shop and a restaurant, where Meals on Wheels prepares food and the community meets to share songs and poetry on open-mic nights.
But it’s got farther to go, just like the community it serves. The damage was so great that the property will be lucky to reopen for the December holidays, Richards said.
The Hanalei Colony Resort was just settling its $2 million flood claim when a July fire, likely caused by a flood-related refrigerator short, burned the property’s pool, gazebo and all three maintenance shops to the ground. The fire claim hasn’t been settled, but it’s likely to be in the $4 million-to-$6 million range, Richards said.
Still, she counts her blessings. Her positive attitude was a large part of why the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association named her 2018 Woman of the Year. HLTA also presented the resort with a 2018 Excellence in Community Service Award.
Richards said she and Kauai’s north shore community faced even greater challenges when Hurricane Iniki hit the island in 1992, taking lives and damaging every building at the resort. She said she used skills she gained as a midwife in the Ozark Mountains.
“It’s important to be able to slow yourself down, access the situation and remain calm,” she said.
It turns out hospitality, not unlike midwifery, is a calling, especially for those who define it the way Richards does.
“Working in hospitality provides an opportunity to live in kindness — to share and to listen and to do all that you can to fulfill someone else’s needs,” she said.