Flood caused at least $15M in damage to public property

IAO VALLEY – As Gov. David Ige made a personal trip to Iao Valley on Thursday to survey the destruction from last week’s torrential rains, government officials estimated the damage to public property and facilities to be at least $15 million.

During a news conference in Wailuku after touring the flood-damaged areas in the valley, Ige said that he will be sending a letter to President Barack Obama to seek federal assistance with the storm damage.

“We had a busy morning touring the valley through the air . . . and in person,” Ige said. “It truly is a sober reminder of the power of Mother Nature and what happens every . . . 500 years or so,” Ige said in Mayor Alan Arakawa’s lounge at the county building.

“I think as you fly over as well as being on the ground and talking with some of the residents, the stream has changed, and it’s moved by more than 100 feet in certain areas,” Ige said. “A stream relatively narrow and well-defined is now broad and widened.”

Vern Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said that the county and the state have exceeded the threshold for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, which is at least $500,000 in damage countywide and $1.9 million statewide. FEMA and Hawaii National Guard officials already have surveyed the area.

Currently, 30 members of the Hawaii Air and Army National Guards have been activated to assist with debris removal around the Wailuku River, Ige said.

The Sept. 13 deluge reached as much as 10 inches during a 24-hour period at the Puu Kukui rain gauge in the West Maui Mountains. The Wailuku River and its tributaries raged through Iao Valley, Happy Valley and Paukukalo. Some residents in Iao Valley were forced to flee to higher ground – including on a roof and a on home’s second floor – and the county’s Kepaniwai Park and the state’s Iao Valley park were flooded and damaged.

The heavy rains also swelled streams on the west side and in East Maui, shutting down the main routes from Central Maui to those areas, Honoapiilani Highway and Hana Highway, respectfully. At least a dozen people had to be rescued from high water and helped to evacuate their homes, public safety officials reported.

Water systems were damaged or affected by the heavy rains, forcing a boil-water advisory for drinking water for several days in South and Central Maui and a voluntary water reduction notice for customers in Central, South and West Maui that remains in effect.

As the state and county await a decision on federal assistance, Arakawa said that county officials are mulling ways to remove the tons of debris. He estimated it could take as many as 9,000 truckloads to remove debris that washed down the river in the flood.

“We are doing what we can in the short term,” he said.

Arakawa said that he understood the anxiety of residents in the area, who have expressed concern about the changed river path and the threat of future rain. A meeting with Iao Valley residents was scheduled for Thursday evening.

While officials gave an estimate for damage to public facilities, county officials were not able Thursday to provide an accounting of damage to private property. Those who have suffered damage from the rainstorm are urged to file reports with the county.

Anna Foust, the county’s emergency management officer, said at the news conference that 20 families were directly impacted by the flooding. She previously said that the extent of the private property damage reported in Iao Valley does not qualify the families for federal assistance, which requires 100 homes destroyed and residents displaced.

Small Business Administration loans with low interest rates could be a source of financial help, she has said.

Maui County estimated the damage at $2 million to Kepaniwai Park, which lost a chunk of its parking lot and had mud and debris filling its pool and some cultural exhibit areas.

Farther upriver at Iao Valley state park, which Ige toured, preliminary estimates put damage at $5 million, according to Steve Thompson, state parks program manager. He said it was too early to say when the park would reopen.

Both Kepaniwai and Iao Valley parks have been closed since Sept. 13.

Thompson pointed out to Ige that land continues to crumble into the Wailuku River more than a week after the flood. The damage was particularly evident near the lower Iao Valley park parking lot with hillsides eroding away.

“It’s still falling,” Thompson said.

Avery Chumbley, president of Wailuku Water Co., which owns land in the park, said that perhaps the Iao Valley parking lot would need to be moved northwest away from the river.

Farther up the valley, red metal railings that were part of a loop trail were bent and crooked with crumbled asphalt beneath. The twisted metal was blocked off by yellow caution tape.

Chumbley noted that the Wailuku River was flowing steadily Thursday at about 30 million to 40 million gallons per day. He asked Ige to imagine the river flowing at 3 billion gallons a day, which is what the U.S. Geological Survey gauge read before being washed away Sept. 13.

Ige took time to visit residents in the valley, including Andy Graham of Tropical Gardens of Maui. He told the governor that a steel bridge on his property had washed away in the flood. The bridge was “like family,” he said, noting that a crossing had been in place there for maybe 100 years.

“It was always rock solid, never was an issue,” Graham said, adding that the last bridge had survived many other storms and floods. Normally, the water would rush down the stream but last week’s rainfall was different.

“It just came down the mountain,” he said.

Graham said that the nursery, which was not operating, had been for sale until about a month ago. He had taken it off the market and was determining whether to restart the gardens. Now, he’s not sure what he’s going to do.

Graham did not have a damage estimate but said that a 300-by-30-foot chunk of his property washed away. Three-foot-high water marks from the floods were visible on the nursery’s gift shop building.

While his business was damaged, Graham said that some of his neighbors lost their homes.

Members of the Higa family attended Thursday’s news conference and thanked Arakawa and his administration for their assistance. The family made headlines when two children and their grandmother fled to their rooftop to escape the floodwaters before being rescued by firefighters.

The family pleaded for something to be done about the Wailuku River’s new route. Lisa Higa said that she had “lost everything already” but was worried about those downstream with the new river course.

“I don’t think people realize how important that is,” she said.

Welling up with emotion, Higa described what the family lost. The family’s home renovation was nearly completed when the single-family house was inundated by the river.

“We lost everything we own, all the riches and all the fancy things you want in your life,” she said.

The flood has left her children feeling unsafe, Higa said.

“I think right now for my kids, they don’t feel secure, they don’t feel safe,” she said. “I ask, ‘How can we be more prepared?’ We need more safety, our kids need to feel safe.”

But the floodwaters also opened the doors to new realizations about the true value of life.

“This has taught me the most valuable thing I had was sitting right in front of me,” Higa said, looking at her children, Andrew, 13, Herbert, 11, and Chanel, 10. Herbert and Chanel were home at the time of the flood with their grandmother, Liline Apana.

“It never cost a penny,” she said. “In this way, we are lucky, we got clarity in life. Not a lot of people see that. We are lucky, we still have everything.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.