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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Hilo coast is a big rainwater mess

By Kevin Dayton and Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writers

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

An aerial view of Hilo's flooded Kamehameha Avenue after the weekend storm. See more photos.

TIM WRIGHT | Special to The Honolulu Advertiser

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HILO, Hawai'i The Big Island went to work yesterday cleaning up the mess left by a weekend downpour that pounded parts of Hilo with nearly 29 inches of rain from Friday night to yesterday morning, closing roads and prompting the state to close schools.

The damage wasn't as bad as the November 2000 flood that prompted a federal disaster declaration, but residents in hard-hit areas of Waiakea Uka were astonished at how fast floodwater surged into their homes.

When floodwater jumped a nearby drainage channel shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday, Hilo real-estate broker Tom Williams suddenly had 18 inches of water pressing against the outside of his house, and six to eight inches of water inside. His freezer on the back lanai was "floating away," he said.

"We didn't know what to do, because this is the first time this has happened to us," Williams said. "We were watching the water. We got as many things as we could up, and all at once, it just happened within five minutes, the whole area all around the house was flooded, and within another minute, the whole inside of the house - the whole inside."

Williams' house off Kupulau Road was being photographed and checked for damage by an insurance claims adjuster yesterday, and the Red Cross paid the family a visit to offer assistance.

The carpet, stove, refrigerator, washer, dryer, all beds, all of the lower-level cabinets and much of the other furniture were ruined.

"It's just been terrible. We've been staying in hotels. The house smells and reeks of mildew," Williams said. The family was also concerned that the floodwater might have been fouled by animal waste from a farming operation above the subdivision, and Williams said they plan to get hepatitis A vaccinations.

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim estimated that more than 100 houses suffered some flood damage from the weekend storms, but no damage estimates were available yesterday.

MORE FLOODING FEARED

Civil Defense officials were concerned with the possibility of still more flooding after heavy rain early yesterday morning, and Kim said detailed damage assessments would have to wait until after the threat passed.

Barney Sheffield, disaster coordinator for the American Red Cross on the Big Island, said the agency helped about a half-dozen families, and the homes in Williams' neighborhood were among the hardest hit that Sheffield saw.

The agency provided bedding, food, clothing and other items to residents who suffered flood damage, and also to residents of one house where a tree fell through the roof, he said.

"It's pretty amazing that we got off as lightly as we did with all the water that came down," Sheffield said. "If this had been O'ahu, they'd still be swimming over there, but due to our terrain, we really dodged a bullet. It could have been a lot worse than it is, for sure."

Red Cross officials closed the only disaster shelter open in Hilo at Auntie Sally Kaleohano's Luau Hale a little past noon yesterday because no one was using it. However, Sheffield said, Big Island residents who suffered damage can still get help by calling 935-8305.

Big Island schools in Hilo, Puna and Ka'u were closed yesterday along with the private St. Joseph School and Kamehameha Kea'au campuses. The Big Island schools are expected to reopen today provided the weather holds.

The flash-flood warning for the Big Island was dropped shortly before noon yesterday after several hours of somewhat drier weather allowed rushing runoff in drainage channels in East Hawai'i to drop, easing the immediate threat of flooding.

"We're just enjoying the quiet period, and we really need it because it keeps the runoff level down, gives it time to drop down," said Kim, who is the acting Big Island Civil Defense director. "Hopefully, it will drop way down so if the rains recur, it will take a while to build up again."

UNSTABLE CONDITIONS

A flash-flood watch remained in effect because of what the National Weather Service is calling "very unstable" conditions, Kim said.

Residents in Williams' neighborhood in Waiakea Uka said their flooding problem is being caused by Waiakea Stream, which jumps its banks during flood-strength rains and overwhelms a drainage channel known as Kupulau Ditch. The ditch was designed to handle smaller volumes of water from other areas, and was quickly overwhelmed, flooding a handful of homes below.

Flood victims included Williams' neighbor Dennis Inouye, 58, who had already ripped all but a small section of carpet out of his 3,600-square-foot house by yesterday morning, and had family members at work scraping the floors. This is the third time he was flooded, he said.

"They classify it as a 100-year or a 200-year storm, so I was thinking after the two that happened in '96 and 2000, I would not see another one in my lifetime ... but eight years later, it happened again, so I don't know. I don't know what's going on," Inouye said.

Williams said his house was flooded in 2000 before his family moved in, but the price was right and Williams figured the flooding problem would be resolved. Unfortunately, government flood-control efforts focused first on other, more densely populated areas down the road, he said.

Yesterday morning, there were only eight new requests for sandbags made to county officials, a sign that the worst of the Big Island flooding may have passed. Bruce McClure, county chief engineer, said 128 requests for sandbags came in on Saturday and Sunday.

One lane of Highway 11 at the 59-mile marker in the Kawa Flats area of Ka'u remained closed because of flooding, while Kamehameha Avenue remained closed, causing traffic to back up in parts of Downtown Hilo. Other major roads remained open, according to Hawai'i County Civil Defense.

State health officials also warned residents to be aware of possible contamination of floodwater in streams, coastal areas and ponding areas. The water may contain harmful contaminants from overflowing sewage systems as well as animal waste and agricultural runoff.

The Hilo sewage treatment plant released partially treated wastewater a number of times over the weekend through the ocean outfall at Puhi Bay because of storm water entering the system. The partially treated sewage was released to prevent it from backing up into the system, county officials said.

KAUA'I ALSO HIT

On Kaua'i, residents on Powerhouse Road in the North Shore town of Wainiha said heavy, steady downpours are nothing new. Even a swelling Hanalei River is commonplace.

"It's not really unusual, but this rain caught a lot of people unaware," said one resident, Karen Lovatto. "It was heavy all night, lightened up a bit and then started pouring again yesterday."

Two of Lovatto's neighbors lost cars and one had floodwater inside the car. Mary Lucas, a neighbor of Lovatto's, said she had a mattress and a pickup truck float through her yard.

"We're all pretty tough out here," Lovatto said. "We don't spook out too easy from the rain."

Kaua'i Civil Defense Administrator Mark Marshall drove to the North Shore yesterday to assess the effects of the rain and flooding. He said there was some minor damage, including two cars being swept into the Wainiha stream, and the roof of a shed was seen floating in Wainiha Stream. He reported no major damage.

"I think this is a testament to our strong building codes that more homes were not damaged because of requirements to be built up and out of flood hazard," Marshall said.

The Army Corps of Engineers sent a team yesterday to inspect the Hanapepe and Waimea levees, Marshall said in a statement. Road crews were clearing landslides and removing debris from a culvert, he said.

The state Department of Health issued a brown-water advisory for Kaua'i after surf site samples by the Kaua'i chapter of Surfrider Foundation showed a lot of bacteria at Waikoko. The public is advised to stay out of floodwater and storm water runoff due to overflowing cesspools, pesticides, animal fecal matter and associated flood debris.

The rain caused a 40-foot Matson container to float down the Hanapepe River.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com and Suzanne Roig at sroig@honoluluadvertiser.com.