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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 12, 2010

Hilo flood-hazard awareness increasing


By Nancy Cook Lauer
West Hawaii Today

HILO For more than 15 years, Buddy Azevedo has been telling anyone who will listen that subdivisions the county approved mauka of Hilo are increasing flood dangers.

On Monday, about a dozen county and federal officials, private landowners and community leaders took a field trip to see for themselves.

Mayor Billy Kenoi, Public Works Director Warren Lee, County Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, a retired expert from the state Department of Transportation and several engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers trudged through knee-high pastures, scaled ladders to descend into stream beds and braved Hilo's trademark sudden rainstorms to get a better understanding of the Waiakea area.

"I feel like some progress is being made on this," Kenoi said after the tour.

But the taxpayers of the present will continue to pay for what Azevedo says are the mistakes of the past actions that he says may have been purposefully undertaken when previous county councils and administrators overlooked obvious flooding issues in order to award development agreements to the politically connected.

"I maintain that when decisions were made for subdivision and drainage ditch in the Waiakea area, favoritism allowed certain new housing developments to be approved in the 1990s that consequently placed favoritism and indiscretion above the well-being of homeowners and residents of the area," Azevedo said.

Azevedo's years of frustration over the issue bubbled up during the tour as he repeatedly described how some county officials and neighbors blamed him for flooding, although the floodwater was merely running through his Mauna Kea View Estates development, and was not caused by it.

Azevedo handed out documents showing the Waiakea Soil and Water Conservation District had concerns about the drainage plan for the Waiakea Acres Subdivision in 1996. He also produced a 1996 letter he wrote putting the county on record for liability in future flooding caused by new developments.

At one point, an exasperated Kenoi had obviously had enough.

"My 'ting' is solution," Kenoi told Azevedo. "We're looking at an interim measure while we pursue a long-term solution."

Landowner Floyd Eaglin said some of his neighbors have seen their flood insurance skyrocket from $300 a year to $4,000. He wants the problem fixed so everyone's insurance rates can become more manageable.

Azevedo contends the flooding problems have cost everyone money.

"These negative impacts have added exorbitant costs to government, the taxpayer and moreover the great emotional pain, cost to homeowners and uncertainty for people who live in the impacted areas of Waiakea," he said in a statement.

Just last month, the County Council approved $200,000 for a consultant to design and survey the Wailoa Flood Control Channel. More money will flow soon after, as the county strives to get the channel to previously authorized depths and avoid federal sanctions that could include the loss of Federal Emergency Management Agency flood insurance for a wide swath of East Hawaii.

The county spent about $2 million to dredge the same channel just seven years ago.

Dredging the channel downstream, however, is just a stopgap measure, as the upstream problems need to be addressed to keep the channel from refilling with silt.

Financial costs have already begun to add up. A flood in November 2000 caused more than $20 million in damages to Hilo Town. Floods also occurred in 2002 and 2008.

"We knew then we had a situation in February 2008 that certainly needs to be looked at again," Lee said. "What's on the ground is on the ground; now we need to see how to mitigate it and see how to reduce the flooding chances."

There's also the question of liability. Deputy Corporation Counsel Joseph Kamelamela said county approval of development agreements for subdivisions doesn't obviate the developer's responsibility to design drainage plans in compliance with government regulations. It would be the developer, not the county, that would be liable for flood damages under that scenario, he said.

Derek Chow, chief of civil works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told West Hawaii Today on Wednesday that a long-term solution will take longer than originally thought, because the Waiakea Steam project is too large to fit in the federal government's small projects category. Instead, it will literally take an act of Congress to approve the project, even if money became available for it, he said.

A large-scale project would pair Waiakea Stream with Palai Stream, take about two years for design, another two years or so for construction, and cost anywhere from $20 million to $50 million, Chow said. The design requires a separate approval by Congress, he said.

In the meantime, an interim solution of smaller detention walls to slow the water and reduce the amount coming downstream during flood conditions might be the way to go, the engineers said. As long as dams don't exceed 25 feet in height or hold back more than 50 acre-feet of water (50 acres at a depth of 1 foot, 25 acres at 2-foot deep, etc.), state approval isn't necessary for construction.

"We were very happy with the involvement by the community and the participation by the county," Chow said. "It certainly helped us to raise the level of importance to communicate that importance to the constituents to get federal funding."