One year after historic floods, Kauai residents cautiously rebuild

One year after historic floods, Kauai residents cautiously rebuild

By Audrey Cleo Yap

HANALEI, Hawaii — Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama is well-versed in how to rescue her family’s farm from floods. After all, she’s been practicing since she was 6, when she learned to drive a tractor. During evacuation drills growing up, she and her father, Rodney, would each jump on a tractor on the family’s 55-acre wetland taro farm in the Hanalei Valley on the island of Kauai.

“And two by two, we would take the tractors up the back of this mountain side and park it, higher from the flash-flood zone,” Haraguchi-Nakayama said.

But despite her preparedness as a sixth-generation farmer — and routinely encountering wet weather on the island, one of the rainiest places in the world — she said little could have readied her for the torrential rain and flooding the island experienced last year when a heavy storm system pounded both Kauai and the island of Oahu, starting April 13.

According to the National Weather Service, Kauai’s north shore received almost 50 inches of rain, setting a new national record for most rainfall within a 24-hour period.

Harrowing images of the aftermath showed the extent of the storm’s damage, which included bison displaced onto the beach from a flooded ranch and houses drowning under muddy brown water.

Debris and fallen pine and albizia trees raked through the Haraguchis’ fields, uprooting anything recently planted, including already-delicate taro roots. Haraguchi-Nakayama and her family also incurred extensive damage to their farmhouse and nonprofit agrarian museum for the Ho‘opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill, a historic mill that dates back to the 1800s, listed as the last standing rice mill in the state of Hawaii.

In the days after the floods, Haraguchi-Nakayama recalled wading through the farm’s office, attempting to salvage documents, photographs and artifacts. Tilapia displaced from the overflowing Hanalei River would swim by her.

Their food truck, an ancillary business, flooded. At one point, her mother, Karol, broke out into hives from mold that had crept up inside of what remained of the farmhouse. While clearing out debris that had rolled onto the taro fields, Haraguchi-Nakayama herself punctured her foot by stepping on a nail, which required a tetanus shot.

“Nobody was really prepared for it. The height of that flash-flood water, the swiftness, the velocity it came down — it’s like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Haraguchi-Nakayama, who is in her 30s. “Nothing in my father’s lifetime or my grandfather’s either — and he’s 97. Everybody was caught off guard.”

That includes beekeeper Mike “Uncle Mike” Yulo. After the first rains, Yulo raced to the farm in Kealia on the east side of the island where he kept his beehives from which he harvests to make teas and desserts that he sells at farmers markets and to local restaurants. Since his honey house was low to the ground, he anticipated it would flood and wanted to salvage as much honey as he could.

“Right when I had the last bucket in my truck, I felt the water on my feet, on my knees and my hips. And then I knew. I watched my honey house wash away,” Yulo, 65, said. As he started to drive away, a rush of water overwhelmed his truck, lifting it up from behind and forcing it into an irrigation ditch. Yulo crawled out of his truck’s window to escape and grabbed onto a bucket of honey, using it as a buoy until he could safely get to higher ground. The whole ordeal happened within 15 to 20 minutes, he said.

Not far away and on the same farm in Kealia, Christy Wong and her husband, Keola, scrambled to save the animals at their Kauai Animal Education Center, an animal sanctuary frequented by local school children. Wong said she watched in horror as one structure on the property flipped over, trapping baby goats and sheep. In all, the center lost 46 of the 157 animals in its care.

“The reality of what happened opened a lot of people’s eyes up to, ‘Whoa, this can happen, this will happen, and how are we going to fix it?’” Wong said of the community’s effort to clear roadways, help those scrambling for housing, and even wrangle lost bison. “Nobody waited for the Coast Guard or federal funding. My family was down there doing it.”

An incremental recovery

According to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, last April’s floods caused an estimated $20 million in damage to public properties and more than 500 homes were affected. On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump approved federal disaster assistance funding via the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help state and local efforts.

But an initial count of damaged homes did not meet FEMA’s threshold to allow Kauai residents to apply for individual assistance funds from the agency, prompting Hawaii Gov. David Ige to write a five-page letter to the agency with an updated count on homes affected in both Kauai and Honolulu counties on June 13, two months after the floods had occurred.

Between both islands, the letter stated, 760 homes were affected, with 176 incurring major damage; 72 were on Kauai. On June 27, residents whose primary home was affected could apply for individual and household assistance funds. To date, FEMA has approved more than $1.5 million in individual and household assistance for Kauai and Honolulu counties.

Richard Morris looks at the flood damage to his sister’s home, in Hanalei, Kauai on April 16, 2018. Heavy rain and flooding caused extensive damage to both the north and south parts of the island.Jamm Aquino / Honolulu Star-Advertiser via AP file

In the days and weeks that followed, communities islandwide implemented a grassroots all-hands-on-deck strategy, with local organizations and nonprofits banding together to provide housing and food assistance. Organizations like the Kauai County Farm Bureau set up an information center for local farmers to find out how to apply for loans and access donated funds. The efforts, Kauai County Mayor Derek Kawakami said were heartening. But it also highlighted deficiencies in the island’s emergency response.

“We’ve identified areas, of course, where we need to improve. One, we just have to have a clear channel of communication between government and nongovernmental organizations,” said Kawakami, who was elected last November,

He added that there was also a recognized need to have mental health experts available immediately because of the stress that families encounter during disasters like the flooding. “We need to have that counselor out there talking to our children, talking to those families that have lost everything,” he said.

For residents like Lanae Anakalea, applying and waiting for federal funds felt like too overwhelming a process especially when she was looking for immediate housing for her and her family, which includes two young children, 5 and 8.

“It wasn’t like our house flooded, and the floodwaters went away and we were at home. We were bouncing around for six weeks trying to figure out what to do with our kids and still work,” Anakalea said.

Flooding along Kauai’s Hanalei Bay, Hawaii on April 15, 2018.Brandon Verdura / U.S. Coast Guard via AP file

She and her family live in Wainiha, a residential community on the northwest coast of Kauai that continues to be impacted because of repairs to Kuhio Highway, a main vein that connects the southeast and northwest parts of the island.

Areas of the highway near the most northwestern communities of Wainiha, Waipa and Haena were especially hit hard. To facilitate ongoing repairs, the Hawaii Department of Transportation instituted a convoy schedule in November, designating when residents can travel to and from the area, which is still restricted to residents only.

According to HDOT Deputy Director of Highways Ed Sniffen, significant challenges to repairing the road — which experienced some 14 landslides — include the damage incurred by three bridges (Waikoko, Waipa and Wailoli) that had to be repaired in order for vehicles to transport heavy construction materials. In all, Sniffen said, Kuhio Highway will undergo some $80 million worth of repairs, 90 percent of which is federally funded.

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