2nd dam failure feared
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|||Kaua'i, O'ahu, Big Island hit hardest by winter rain|
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KILAUEA, Kaua'i — The catastrophic failure of Kaloko Reservoir early yesterday unleashed a flash flood of black water that uprooted homes, exploded power transformers in flashes of blue light and left dozens of trees bobbing in the ocean.
One person was killed, six were still missing last night and at least two homes were destroyed.
The reservoir's collapse unleashed an estimated 300 million gallons of water — the worst natural disaster on Kaua'i since Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
Civil defense officials worried about another reservoir failing, earthen Morita Reservoir, which sits downstream of Kaloko.
"Unfortunately, we are still facing a crisis in this area," said Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, director of state civil defense. "In particular, we are concerned about Morita Reservoir. It is structurally very weak. In briefings with the Corps of Engineers, we have a preliminary assessment that that dam could go at any time."
Water had topped Morita Reservoir and the reservoir itself was eroding, Lee said. Half the road beneath the lip of the reservoir had washed away and engineers were working to drain it.
The six people still missing were believed to be family members, guests or tenants of veteran North Shore real estate professional Bruce Fehring and his wife, Cyndee.
Fehring owns two parcels with homes along Wailapa Stream. He and his wife were not on the property when the flood hit.
At Kaloko, a 250-foot portion of what used to be the 40-foot high, 1,800-foot long reservoir gave way.
RUSH OF MUD AND TREES
State Civil Defense officials said the reservoir collapsed at 7:30 a.m. But the people who will remember it forever said it actually burst around 5:30 a.m.
Two miles downstream, the rush of mud and trees arrived as a roar and then thunder as it grew closer.
"It sounded like 10 jet engines coming at us," said Wailapa Road resident Olivia Gulish. "Trees were cracking. You couldn't hear yourself talk."
The roiling mixture of debris left the Wailapa riverbed scoured to rock and hard clay.
An hour after the floodwaters subsided, Ken Koeller climbed through the mess looking for signs of life.
"They say when you hear a freight train, run! I did," Koeller said. "It got within 10 feet of where I live."
Matt Rosener, a hydrologist with the nonprofit Hanalei Watershed Hui, has been worrying about Kaua'i's reservoirs.
"We've been having exceptionally heavy rain," Rosener said. "People in the community have been concerned about this scenario."
RASH OF WINTER STORMS
Yesterday's disaster was the most serious consequence so far of this winter's rash of storms. The Red Cross estimates that 137 homes were damaged by flooding on O'ahu over the last three weeks.
Ed Teixeira, vice director of the state Civil Defense, said owners of private reservoirs are responsible for their upkeep. Gov. Linda Lingle said she authorized Lee to "destroy any privately owned dam that poses a threat to the public welfare."
Kaloko was built out of dirt and rock in 1890 by Kilauea Sugar Co. during the peak of Hawai'i's sugar plantation era.
Landowner Jimmy Pflueger owns part of the land that the 116-year-old reservoir sits on. But yesterday's problems appear unrelated to any of the illegal grading and storm water runoff that generated his multi-million settlement last week with county, state and federal agencies.
"We are in shock and sadness over the loss of life from the torrent of water that escaped from the century-old reservoir partially on property we own," Pflueger said in a written statement. "...The moment I heard about the reservoir this morning, I rushed to Kaua'i to try to be of help and see firsthand what needs to be done. There is no other word to describe my feelings at what I saw other than I was utterly devastated."
The reservoir and its earthen dam were built to irrigate sugar cane. In the early 1900s, the land was purchased by the Lucas family, which eventually became the Mary N. Lucas Trust.
Property records on Kaua'i show that Pflueger Partners owns a 109-acre parcel in the area that includes part of the reservoir.
The Lucas trust owns the rest of the reservoir and the adjacent property that is leased to Princeville Cattle Co. in care of Pflueger, said Ron Agor, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Kaua'i representative.
Agor said Pflueger first bought the property in December 1987.
The Kaloko Reservoir is near the same stretch of coastline where Pflueger conducted illegal grading on his property in Pila'a. The work included grading on a coastal plateau, building a road just above the beach and creating a 40-foot cliffside cut mauka of the road.
The work did not include measures to control stormwater in case of heavy rain and in November 2001, a mudslide from Pfleuger's property flowed onto coastal reefs.
"We don't believe the failure of the dam is related to any of the work done by Pflueger in that area," said Dean Higuchi, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one of the many agencies that announced Pflueger's $7.5 million settlement March 9.
Pflueger was cited in 2002 by the EPA for activity at the Kaloko Reservoir. He was ordered to stop polluted water discharges into streams and the ocean from the site. The EPA found he graded and disturbed a large swath of land at Kaloko Reservoir without having received the necessary permits.
BODY FOUND OFFSHORE
As workers set out to remove the hundreds of trees that littered Kuhio Highway yesterday, a 31-foot Coast Guard boat recovered a body one mile offshore in Kilauea Bay. The victim was described as a male about 30 years old. Kaua'i firefighters took the body to Wilcox Medical Center, where the county morgue is located.
Lani Yukimura, a spokeswoman at Wilcox, could only say last night that, "We do have an unidentified body at the morgue."
The storm that hit Kaua'i yesterday was expected to move to O'ahu last night but "Kaua'i, for the moment, is still ripe for some showers," said Roy Matsuda, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service. "They still have the potential for heavier rains to revisit them through Thursday. Then there should be some easing and reprieve on Friday."
The break in the Kaloko Reservoir caused muddy water to cover a 100-yard swath of Kuhio Highway between mile marker 21 and 22, near the vicinity of Wailapa Road.
State and county workers continued to remove hundreds of trees that will indefinitely choke Kuhio Highway, the main road into and out of Kaua'i's North Shore.
A 30-foot section of the roadway will have to be replaced, and the shoulders on both sides were eroded. When the road is re-opened, it probably will be one lane with contra-flow, said Rod Haraga, director of the state Department of Transportation.
"We are not repairing that road because of the imminent danger, perhaps, of the Morita dam," Haraga said. "I don't want my crews out there repairing the highway and if this dam were to break, we could lose more people."
Emergency workers were also working to divert water from the Waita Reservoir on the Garden Island's South shore. The Waita Reservoir is the largest man-made reservoir in the state and near the town of Koloa.
Three emergency shelters were opened at Kilauea Neighborhood Center and Kula School on the north end of the island and at Kalaheo Neighborhood Center on the south end.
A water main along Wailapa Road also broke so residents were urged to conserve water. Those affected by the waterline break were being served with portable water by workers from the county water department.
Kaua'i Rep. Hermina Morita, D-14th (Kapa'a, Hanalei) said the community is reeling from the sudden devastation but pulling together.
"They know how to help one another," she said. "They've been through hurricanes. Everybody's doing as much as they can. At least the hurricane — you could somewhat prepare for it. This was just a tragedy with no advance warning."
Morita said she'll work in the state Legislature to help make sure the resources are available "to reconnect the North Shore area to the rest of the island as quickly as possible."
Sen. Gary Hooser D-7th, (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau) flew home from O'ahu after the reservoir burst. "We're just hoping and praying that survivors are found," he said.
Hooser said the two homes destroyed were several miles from the reservoir. "This will make everyone take a close look at the dams they have in the area."
He said some of the debris from the homes affected was found a quarter-mile out to sea, pushed there by the force of the water.
"We're a small community," Hooser said, "much like a family. There's a lot of shock. But we'll pull together and get through it."
8-FOOT WALL OF WATER
Others were reeling with tales of survival.
Dennis Barretto, 53, had been delivering newspapers around 5 a.m. when he heard what sounded like bowling pins as he drove up Kuhio Highway. Minutes later he encountered an 8-foot-high wall of water and debris rushing straight at him.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," Barretto said. "I was scared. I just took a deep breath."
As the water rushed past his car, Barretto saw telephone poles crumbling to the ground, nearly missing the three cars ahead of him.
"We all tried to reverse, but we got kind of stuck," Barretto said. "It was like a tsunami," he said.
Edelle Sher, a Kahiliwai Ridge resident, said a "50-foot wall of water" filled a normally dry stream bed. And "power poles just washed down the highway," she said.
Mark Atkins lives just above Kilauea Falls and woke up to the screeching sound of his computer.
"I started seeing green flashes — big 'ole green flashes," Atkins said. "Transformers were exploding and the power went out."
Peter Vanderlubbe woke up to the sound of what he thought was thunder.
"A wall of water was uprooting trees," he said. "When it hit the highway, it way overwhelmed the drainage system, gushed up over the highway and deposited hundreds of mature trees, many of them skinned of their bark on top of the highway."
The flood raged downstream, engulfing what local people call Bette Midler Falls, which lies below the site of a home the singer once owned.
Wailapa Stream eventually flows into Kilauea River, which was littered yesterday with logs and the debris of homes and families: bits of roofing, plastic plumbing, cans of kitchen cleanser, a suitcase, pillows and family photographs.Advertiser staff writers Karen Blakeman, William Cole, Robbie Dingeman, Mike Gordon and Loren Moreno contributed to this report.