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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 14, 2006

All O'ahu utility poles may be checked

Nanakuli utility poles photo gallery

By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer

Phone repair crews were in Nanakuli yesterday, replacing utility cables that were pulled to the ground in Sunday's accident.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Farrington Highway literally did look like a parking lot yesterday in Nanakuli as Honolulu police, O'ahu Civil Defense workers and repair crews struggled to clear up damage from Sunday's sudden toppling of a dozen utility poles along the highway. Farrington traffic was set up contraflow-style, and vehicles moved very slowly.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The dramatic toppling of a dozen utility poles along Farrington Highway may lead to an islandwide inspection of poles, Hawaiian Electric Co. officials said yesterday.

Also pending was analysis of the condition of the Farrington poles before they were knocked down Sunday by high winds.

The analysis will try to determine whether termite damage or some other factor played a role when a strong gust of wind toppled the poles along a half-mile of highway in Nanakuli.

HECO officials then will determine whether an inspection of other poles on the island is needed, said Lynne Unemori, Hawaiian Electric Co. director of corporate communications.

The 65-foot wooden utility poles, which were from 60 to 200 feet apart, were inspected as recently as 2002. At that time, 100 poles along the Leeward Coast were replaced, representing about one-third of the poles in the area.

Some of the poles that came down Sunday may have been newly installed with a wire-mesh sock in the ground to keep termites at bay, Unemori said.

Utility poles generally last about 30 years, depending on their exposure to salt air and other elements.

HECO officials said the older utility poles are made of termite-treated wood, and when inspections are done, officials examine the pole's integrity, looking for cracks, dirty insulators and rust. They thump the poles to test if they've been eaten and if the outside casing is solid, she said.

"We have to first determine what the cause was and then look at how the problem might be relevant to other parts of the island," Unemori said.

"We've been focusing most heavily on the traffic and the inconveniences to the residents. We really know how frustrating it is for the people out there to go through this section. We appreciate their patience."

Twelve poles splintered at 1 p.m. Sunday, about the same time National Weather Service forecasters saw fierce winds sweep down from the Wai'anae Mountains, accelerating to about 60 mph, said Roy Matsuda, lead forecaster.

The poles fell across all four lanes of Farrington traffic, crushing several vehicles. As many as 20 cars were damaged.

The utility poles are designed to withstand winds of 56 mph, Unemori said.

Honolulu police and O'ahu Civil Defense workers were on the scene directing traffic yesterday.

HECO crews spent Sunday night and all day yesterday reconnecting lines and restoring power to 450 businesses and residents in the Pu'u Heleakala subdivision who were the last to have power restored. Electricity had been restored to all but three customers as of 5:45 p.m. yesterday, HECO said.

Initially, 1,400 customers lost power. The Sack N Save store was without electricity for two hours, which forced the store to throw away items that were cooking, said Sheryl Toda, spokeswoman.

About 60 workers removed the snapped poles, clearing the four-lane roadway. Drivers crept along, with one lane open in each direction until about 2 p.m., when a dirt access road was opened into the Leeward communities, Unemori said.

For the evening rush hour yesterday, two Wai'anae-bound lanes and one Honolulu-bound lane were open.

All four lanes were opened last night.

The accident closed Farrington Highway between Haleakala Avenue and Lualualei Naval Road, cutting off access to the Wai'anae Coast until the Army opened Kolekole Pass to civilian traffic. The pass was closed as a detour route to the Wai'anae Coast last night.

"Our focus (since the accident) has been on the restoration of power and the access of the road," Unemori said. "We've taken the poles to our facilities and are looking at them. It appears that after the first couple of poles went down, the weight of the others pulled them down."

Vinh Doan, an 'Aiea resident, who had just turned off into the Pacific Shopping Mall on Sunday to meet a friend, said the poles were up one moment and down the next.

"I couldn't speak," Doan said yesterday. "I was talking to my friend and I couldn't get words out. I saw the telephone pole falling by the McDonald's, and I looked back and others were falling, too.

"My car would have been right in the middle of that."

The traffic aggravation renewed pledges by area lawmakers to revive plans for a mauka freeway and to finish an emergency bypass road into and out of the Wai'anae coastal communities.

After the initial shock, many residents were left to find out how they were going to get to and from work yesterday, said Rep. Maile Shimabukuro, D-45th District (Wai'anae, Makaha).

"One constituent called me and said he left Makaha at 8 a.m. and was only in Ma'ili by 10 a.m.," Shimabukuro said. "Without traffic, that's generally a 10-minute trip. I understand that people are frustrated. The vast majority of people work outside of Wai'anae."

Work on the emergency route is about three-quarters complete and should be finished by 2008, said City Councilman Todd Apo. Establishing the right route between Wai'anae and Makaha is holding up the work, he said.

Reach Suzanne Roig at sroig@honoluluadvertiser.com.