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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, February 24, 2005

City crew's sweat flows so streams, too, can flow

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Concrete benches to lawn furniture, dead animals to car tires, shopping carts to boulders to tree branches — if it lands in a city stream, they take it out.

Efren Estomago cuts away clumps of vegetation from the side of Palolo Stream during a scheduled cleanup by the city's Stream Maintenance Crew. Estomago, 39, of Wai'anae, is temporary crew chief and says he derives a lot of satisfaction from his job.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

They are Honolulu's stream troopers — half a dozen guys who make up the City and County Stream Maintenance Crew.

Sinkholes, they fill 'em. Mudslides, they rake out the muck. Mammoth logs, they drag 'em away — with raw muscle power, if possible. If not, they rip them to size with a chain saw. If that doesn't work, they call in the heavy equipment.

"They do the heavy lifting," said Larry Leopardi, Road Maintenance Division chief. "And that's all they do. Normally, they go out with shovels and tools to dislodge things and pick up debris.

"If there's a blockage or a restriction in a storm drain, that's going to slow up the draining of the water."

Water, according to Leopardi, is the mortal enemy of roadways.

A crane and tractor clear debris from Palolo Stream. The Stream Maintenance Crew, in charge of cleanups from Halawa to Kalama Valley, calls in heavy equipment when it can't do the job by hand.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

"And we're having a very wet year," he said.

If they can't get heavy equipment to the location — and that happens a lot — the crew is right back to muscle and blood.

Yet, "I choose to do this," said Efren Estomago, 39, the temporary crew chief. The Wai'anae man started out in stream maintenance 14 years ago and worked his way up. Estomago switched jobs two years ago, but then returned to his first love.

"I just loved the job," he said. "Every day it's something different. It's hard, it can be dangerous, but I sleep like a baby every night."

Yesterday the men were sawing branches and removing tons of debris from Palolo Stream near Palolo Elementary School.

Numbers to call

To report debris or overgrowth in a stream near you, call:

Honolulu District: 484-7642

'Aiea-Pearl City-'Ewa: 455-1725

Kailua-Waimanalo: 262-8346

Kane'ohe: 247-3553

La'ie: 293-5657

Hale'iwa-Waialua: 637-4795

Wahiawa-Mililani: 621-5241

Wai'anae: 696-3421

Cedric Helliangao, 23, of 'Ewa Beach, agrees with Estomago about another aspect of the job — the closeness of the crew members. "I spend more time with these guys than I do with my own family," he said. "I trust them. We're like brothers."

If they aren't working together, the stream troopers are socializing together.

Whether on the job or off, they look out for each other, they say.

Their work is strenuous. The Stream Maintenance Crew is exposed to the elements — hot sun or cold rain and other bad weather. But each member is a specialist in keeping the drainage ways unclogged and open. There's only so much you can do with a computer and equipment, according to Leopardi. You still need the right bunch to do the hard labor.

Stream maintenance is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Once you get done, you start over again. It's a never-ending process.

Leopardi wishes people would be better stewards of the land. He can't understand why they don't just put their old refrigerators and stoves out by the curb when bulky-item pickup is scheduled. Instead, they dump them into the streams.

"You wouldn't believe the stuff people throw into the drainage system," he said. "Shopping carts and old tires."

It's the stuff that streams are made of — until the Stream Maintenance Crew arrives and opens things up again. Until next time.

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.