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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Kaua'i's spirit endured Hurricane 'Iniki's test

On a placid, sunny day earlier this month, JoAnn Yukimura, former Kaua'i mayor, greeted a radio journalist at the Kaua'i County Building.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

Ten years earlier, when Yukimura was mayor, the county building offered a refuge from a rapidly advancing 'Iniki.

Advertiser library photo • Sept. 11, 1992

 •  Lee Cataluna: 'Iniki proved Kaua'i's resiliency

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

LIHU'E, Kaua'i — It is difficult, 10 years after Hurricane 'Iniki, to remember just how complete a violation it was.

Except for those who were there.

"We were living in a rental in Wailua Houselots, and we almost died in that house. I believe we were saved by a can of corn and a couple of mattresses," said Beth Tokioka, who worked in sales at the Westin Kaua'i hotel.

"In the first half-hour, the roof came off and the debris was flying around. We huddled under a mattress. The door was propped open by a can of corn (to equalize the air pressure in the house) —if that door had slammed shut, I think the house would have gone.

"It was scary. It was very scary. We held hands, and we prayed and cried," she said.

A neighboring family abandoned a home mid-storm to run to a stronger structure. It was a good thing.

When they got back to their house, "the only thing standing was a shower stall," Tokioka said. "The house had just exploded."

Kaua'i residents who were there will remember two Sept. 11 anniversaries tomorrow—the terrorist attacks of last year came on the ninth anniversary of a head-on strike by a hurricane with winds to 160 miles an hour and gusts at one location measured at more than 200 miles an hour.

The Wai'anae Coast was also battered, though the damage was not as severe as Kaua'i, where waves atop storm surges crashed 800 feet inland in certain areas, and marched two stories high through coastal hotels. Tornado-like downbursts within the framework of the hurricane flattened great sections of inland forest and mowed subdivision homes like fields of grain.

Few buildings were unscathed. Nearly 6,000 Kaua'i homes were destroyed or suffered serious damage. Many thousands of people were forced to live with friends, neighbors, in tents in their yards, in hotels.

Most communities would not have electricity or telephone service for weeks — in some cases months. Then-mayor JoAnn Yukimura remembers going to a shelter a day or two after the storm and recalls her own despair at seeing hundreds of newly homeless people lined up for food and shelter.

And yet, there was a positive side. Kaua'i residents had gone through another, albeit weaker, hurricane in 1982 — Hurricane Iwa. Many people set aside or delayed the sense of trauma, and moved forward, because by experience they knew that was what was needed.

In a speech to the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce two months after the hurricane, Yukimura talked about that:

"When the Governor and I went up in a helicopter on the day after the hurricane to survey the damage, there were two things that stood out: one was the extent of damage, which made my heart weep; the other was the fact that people were out and about clearing their yards and neighborhoods, fixing their roofs and even waving to us. The spirit was clear and upbeat, even in the midst of the devastation."

A few people today find a kind of wry humor in the situation.

"I could live the life of the rich and famous. I could take a sunbath in every room in the house," said Bunji Shimomura of Hanapepe.

Shimomura, then the county's deputy county clerk, left his shattered home and worked day and night with other election workers to put on the 1992 primary election — just eight days after the storm.

Some of the polling places were in National Guard tents. Specially trained National Guard personnel from Honolulu were driven from polling place to polling place, and where there were not enough civilian poll workers, Guardsmen stayed to help. And the voters turned out.

Fifty-three percent of Kaua'i registered voters stumbled through the rubble to cast ballots in that election. That was not far off the statewide turnout of 58 percent.

Without electricity, there was no reasonable way to count the ballots on island, so they were shipped to Honolulu.

"We flew the ballots, with observers and staff in General Richardson's plane, and took them to the counting center in Honolulu," Shimomura said. Maj. Gen. Edward Richardson was the head of the state Department of Defense.

Mark Marshall, the head of Kaua'i's three-person county Civil Defense office, said the island has gained immensely from 'Iniki in its disaster preparedness. He identified three key areas of strength:

  • The island's buildings are much more storm-resistant, thanks to tougher post-hurricane building standards, and there are more and better shelters available for those driven from homes and hotels.
  • Disaster plans are much more realistic, and individuals from throughout the community have been willing—because of the experience of 'Iniki — to participate in emergency planning.
  • Kaua'i's people are hurricane veterans, with a special strength and a memory of how to respond.

"When we had a hurricane alert last year, I didn't get calls asking what to put in my hurricane preparedness kit. People just asked when it was going to hit," Marshall said.

All the island's fire stations are now hardened, and their roll-up doors are designed to handle hurricane wind force. A new Kaua'i Humane Society animal shelter also has space for 300 people in the storm-proof basement. Laminated glass and aluminum storm screens have been installed at the county convention hall, one of the island's largest shelter sites.

All the island's homes built or rebuilt since the hurricane have metal straps that form a continuous bond from the foundation to the roof, and the houses should protect people far better than the ones that preceded them.

The county has a property tax break in place for people who build an even stronger shelter within their homes, with steel or concrete framing, to protect humans from things like flying two-by-fours, which can readily pierce a home's siding.

The spine of the island's electrical system is now a series of hurricane-proof steel towers. Utility lines in many areas have been put underground. There are emergency power generators in place at key water pumps and communications stations.

In Hurricane 'Iniki, as at similar storms around the nation, most of the recovery cost involved processing the debris — broken buildings, utility poles, trees and the rest.

"We've got an excellent debris management plan. It identifies specific sites for staging and for managing debris," Marshall said.

There is a plan to use local contractors and suppliers — keeping Kaua'i people employed at a time when their jobs are in turmoil —before any off-island vendors are called upon. Shipping companies have agreed to load emergency and rebuilding supplies before non-essential goods on incoming barges and ships.

"We took the lessons learned from 'Iniki and for 10 years we've been applying them. We're light years from where we were 10 years ago," Marshall said.

Even after a decade, the island is not entirely recovered.

"A lot of people moved away to find work," Yukimura said. Compared to the other islands, Kaua'i's census numbers show there are slightly fewer people between 18 and 40 — ages of people who would be in their early careers.

The island has fewer hotel rooms than it did, as well. Partly, that's because three major hotels remain closed. The old Waiohai, after standing vacant for nine years, is being rebuilt as a timeshare by the Marriott chain. The old Po'ipu Beach Hotel and Coco Palms Hotel remain closed, and still bear scars from the hurricane.

Martin Rice, a spice wholesaler, said that people who went through the hurricane together and remain on the island have a special bond — a sense of knowing that they can count on one another.

Hawaiian cultural educator Sabra Kauka said that when people from ravaged neighborhoods got together to eat and to work, they created unique friendships.

"I still see people who shared during that time. There was spontaneous kokua. I've always liked that about this small community," Kauka said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.

A glimpse of the Kaua'i County Municipal Building, built fairly recently, shows a calm landscape that is missing some of the features that characterized it 10 years earlier.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

Hurricane 'Iniki bent palm trees and blew away parts of the roof on the old Big Save Market building in Lihu'e when it hit 10 years ago.

Advertiser library photo • Sept. 11, 1992