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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 30, 2006

State in for long, costly weather recovery

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

Stan Fuller, a Department of Health inspector, checked a mosquito trap yesterday near the lei stands at Honolulu International Airport. This type of trap collects female mosquitoes.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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AN END IN SIGHT

Conditions that caused persistent rain are starting to break up, but not before Hawai'i gets at least one more round of wet weather, said Andy Nash, the National Weather Service director of operations. "We'll be out of this pattern in about two weeks," he said. "Most probably, a week from now, we'll see the end of this.

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AFTER RAIN, PROBLEMS REMAIN

Mosquitoes: Officials fear an explosion of mosquitoes could spread West Nile virus more quickly if it is introduced in Hawai'i.

Repairs: A month or more of debris cleanup will be followed by months of patching potholes and roadwork.

Agriculture: Hits on farmers in Kahuku and Hanalei will cut into supplies of local corn, papayas and taro.

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Hawai'i will be feeling the impact of its wettest March in 55 years long after the rain is gone.

From plugging potholes to replanting papayas, recovery work will require time, money and patience, officials said.

The wet weather has created ideal conditions for mosquito breeding. An explosion in the mosquito population could speed the spread of West Nile virus if it were introduced in Hawai'i.

To help prevent that, the state Health Department's Vector Control Branch set up mosquito traps at every port of entry in the state, including Honolulu International Airport, Honolulu Harbor, Barbers Point Harbor and Hickam Air Force Base harbor on O'ahu.

The traps are designed to capture breeding night-biting mosquitoes known as "quins" that could serve as West Nile virus carriers. Quins breed in dirty floodwaters and catch basins, said Greg Olmsted, Vector Control Branch program manager.

"West Nile virus is not known to be here," said Olmsted, who noted there are also day-biting mosquitoes, which are more of a nuisance. "Our concern is that after seven to 10 days after the rain stops, we could see a large number of adult mosquitoes."

Vector Control has been spraying a light oil that's an effective mosquito killer for 24 hours, and spreading poison granules in some areas to control breeding.

"As long as it continues to rain and the water is flowing, it'll wash mosquitoes out but as soon as the rain stops, breeding will occur because the water is standing," Olmsted said.

Some of the flooding areas that are being monitored are Waikane, Kahana, Punalu'u, Kai-lua Heights, Waihe'e and Kahuku, Olmsted said.

Mosquitoes also can spread dengue.

"It's so bad," Clarita Nozawa, wife of Kahuku corn farmer Jigger Nozawa, said of the large swarm of mosquitoes surrounding her and others working in the muddy fields trying to save what they can of a damaged crop.

"The water is so yucky, we're all sinking in mud and there are a lot of wigglers in the water. There's just so much mosquitoes but we're scrambling to save what we can."

MORE HEALTH WORRIES

Other health concerns include the spread of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can cause fever and nausea.

"People who are cleaning up flood areas, if they have cuts and scratches they should really stay out of the water," Olmsted said.

Rodents also will be a problem since they will head for food, which may bring them more into the open, especially to areas where garbage from flooding has collected.

Silt from the runoff going into the ocean and mold present other concerns.

Watson Okubo, section chief of monitoring for the state Health Department's Clean Water Branch, said officials don't know exactly what's in the silt but suspect pathogens are present in some cases.

"For the long term, we'll be doing tissue analysis looking for heavy metal and chlorinated pesticides in crabs and other sea life," Okubo said. "Chlordane used as a termite pesticide has made its way into some of the streams."

Mold could become a problem if not detected and cleaned from flooded homes and other structures, said state environmental health specialist Shawn Haruno.

"If everyone is diligent about cleaning it up, it shouldn't be a problem," Haruno said.

He suggests residents fix any water leaks that have occurred and clean any biological growths they see, using soap or a solution of 1 cup of bleach with a gallon of water. "People need to be careful not to mix it with ammonia products," Haruno said.

Another effective solution is the use of HEPA filters with vacuums, Haruno said.

ROAD REPAIRS

Larry Leopardi, city Road Maintenance Division chief, said debris will have to be cleared before road repairs can begin.

Heavy rain normally will wash down surface debris but because the current conditions have lasted six weeks, the flow has carried "anything that will float into the ocean," Leopardi said. "We not only have surface debris but uprooted trees, tin cans, paper, silt, dirt, rocks."

Road maintenance crews have been working around the clock and some employees have not had a day off in weeks, Leopardi said.

The work ahead not only includes cleanups, which could take more than a month, but pothole patching and road repairs.

"Quite a bit of roads took a beating from the heavy rains, especially on the Windward side," he said.

"No part of the island escaped. Everybody had a fair share, it's just some got more."

When crews become available from cleanup, they'll begin patching potholes. The next step is called "first aid," which is to lay down an inch of asphalt to try and smooth out the roadway "to buy time so the city can put out a construction contract" because any repaving will require a period of dry weather.

Leopardi said some roads in Kane'ohe need work by hand to repair shoulders.

State maintenance crews will also begin filling potholes as soon as the weather improves.

Some state road projects have been delayed for weeks.

Transportation Department spokesman Scott Ishikawa said some of the delays include repaving, such as the 8-mile stretch on Kamehameha Highway between Waiahole and Kahana Bay, Kamehameha Highway from Castle Junction to the Veterans Cemetery, and concrete pouring for a section of the H-1 widening project.

For the city, the recovery work will mean delays in some other programs. "We're going to have to rejuggle since our focus now is on reaction," Leopardi said.

AGRICULTURE HIT HARD

"This is the worst I've ever seen in my 58 years," Kahuku corn grower Jigger Nozawa said as he and his family tried to save 10 percent to 15 percent yield from a crop devastated by roughly 70 days of rain by his count.

"It's not like getting 20 inches in one week and it stops raining," Nozawa said. "It's been continuous. I seen bad ones in the late '70s and '80s but nothing like this. We're 10 weeks behind schedule and we never plant for six weeks so there's no corn (for early) summer.

"If it stops raining today, it's still going to take 10 to 14 days before we can go in the fields. Up to now, we're barely surviving."

Nozawa's best hope is to plant soon so he can harvest in July.

It's the second straight year of heavy February-March rain for Windward growers from Waimanalo to Kahuku but the severity has taken its toll, knocking out papaya, basil and other herbs, cucumber, tomatoes and corn, said Jari Sugano, University of Hawai'i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources' extension agent for Windward O'ahu.

"The farmers can't get equipment in and out of the fields to do preventive measures so the yield is going to be less," she said. "They've suffered two years but they're resilient, they'll come back."

Gov. Linda Lingle last week sent a request for disaster designation to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If approved, the declaration would make low-interest loans available to local farmers who have lost at least 30 percent of their crops.

LESSONS LEARNED

Faye Chambers, state hazard mitigation officer, said the key to mitigating long-term effects of bad weather is a change in attitude toward managing emergencies rather than reacting to an event when it's too late.

"Why does it take an event or loss of life for government agencies to ask themselves how seriously do we take emergency management," Chambers said. "Government needs to listen to people in the response arena fire, police when they point out areas that need funding and staffing instead of saying we can't afford it."

Prevention is public awareness and education and it has to be done regularly, not only when you have money, she said.

"To do it right with emergency management, there are no options," Chambers said.

Okubo, the state Clean Water Branch's section chief of monitoring, said the lesson is "like the commercial that says, 'Either pay me now or pay me later.' Maintenance needs to be done. It's a high-ticketed item that's needed."

AFTER RAIN, PROBLEMS REMAIN

Mosquitoes: Officials fear an explosion of mosquitoes could spread West Nile virus more quickly if it is introduced in Hawai'i.

Repairs: A month or more of debris cleanup will be followed by months of patching potholes and roadwork.

Agriculture: Hits on farmers in Kahuku and Hanalei will cut into supplies of local corn, papayas and taro.

Reach Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.