Friends and family help victims of Iao Valley flood with cleanup

IAO VALLEY – Mud splatters covered the white walls. Brown water saturated the floors. A foot of mud filled the hallway. Items in damp kitchen drawers needed to be thrown away.

Family and friends converged on the Higa family home in Iao Valley on Wednesday and Thursday to help mop up after water from the raging Wailuku River ran through the home Tuesday night and forced family members to seek refuge on the roof.

“I lost everything,” said homeowner Lisa Higa on Thursday morning. “My kids no more even slippers.”

“It’s chaos over here,” she said as a large industrial fan roared in an attempt to dry the wet floors. At least 10 people walked in and out of the home cleaning up what they could.

Higa and her husband, Stephen, were not sure Wednesday what their next step would be in their home that was almost completely remodeled before the Wailuku River rushed through. They figured all of their cabinets had to be replaced and belongings thrown away.

A friend estimated the damage to the white one-story home to be at least $100,000, not including the contents lost.

“We’re just trying to clean up and get our kids’ life in order,” Stephen Higa said.

The family did not have flood insurance and were not in the federal flood zone that required any, Lisa Higa said.

Her home is at the farthest point from the river on the property. Downed trees upstream may have redirected the swollen river toward her home, changing the flow that normally runs parallel to the home, she said.

Elsewhere on Maui, assessments were being made and cleanups continuing after Tuesday’s heavy rains flooded Iao Valley, swelled streams islandwide that caught unsuspecting drivers and shut down Honoapiilani Highway on the west side and Hana Highway in East Maui. At least a dozen people had to be rescued from high water and helped to evacuate their homes.

The raging Wailuku River that swamped the Higa’s home washed away a massive chunk of the Kepaniwai Park parking lot upstream. Debris was strewn about the park Wednesday morning, asphalt was cracked, tree roots exposed and fencing left hanging into the riverbed. Maui County Communications Director Rod Antone said that estimates on the damage at the park in Iao Valley were expected today.

At Iao Valley State Monument farther up the road from Kepaniwai, the state parks division still was doing an assessment on the damage, said Dan Dennison, senior communications manager with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, on Thursday. The park remained closed and access gated off.

While residents in Iao Valley may have taken the brunt of the damage from Tuesday’s rains, the downpours also led to flooding in other parts of the island, including West Maui and Haiku.

In Kauaula Valley in West Maui, residents’ vehicle access was cut off Tuesday night as a torrent washed over their access road causing damage and leaving boulders behind. Mark Palakiko, who lives in the area, said Thursday that people were dropping off water and food for the residents, who were stuck at their homes.

Tuesday’s rains also flooded the Haiku Post Office, said Duke Gonzales, a corporate communications specialist with the U.S. Postal Service. Haiku postal employees worked diligently throughout Wednesday to clear out water and mud left in the post office.

The post office’s retail lobby opened a few minutes later than usual Wednesday morning because of the clean up, but there were no impacts to postal services, he said. All mail was delivered on schedule.

Back at Iao Valley, the Horcajo family on Thursday was assessing damage to their 37-acre property that the Waiuku River runs through. A shed was destroyed, along with coffee, bananas and other crops. Farming equipment and other items were washed away or strewn around the property. Boulders and other debris were scattered and piled about.

At least, the home near Iao Valley Road was not damaged.

Bob Horcajo said it was too early to estimate the cost of the damage. “We are not even there yet. I have no idea. I don’t know,” he said Thursday afternoon.

Family members were in the process of contacting government agencies to see what the next steps are in the cleanup process and what they can do with the riverbed growing three times as wide and threatening a cottage. They were in the process of speaking with contractors.

Like the Higa family, the Horcajos did not have flood insurance. The general site is classified as an area of minimum flooding and flood insurance is not mandatory, county officials said.

Because the river carved a larger streambed, growing from 40 to 50 feet wide to about 150 feet wide, Horcajo’s son Kainoa said that the riverbed now runs close to one of the family’s cottages. If the river had risen a bit higher, the cottage would have been swept away.

“It wasn’t near the river, now it is,” he said.

With about two more months left in the hurricane season, which will be followed by the rainy season, the potential for more heavy rain worried Kainoa Horcajo. He wanted to see if government agencies could assist and restore the normal pathway of the river.

Although their storage shed did not wash away, it was pushed off of its foundation and moved about 20 feet, said Bob Horcajo. A bridge that used to belong to a nearby neighbor was now in his property, he said.

At the Higa home, some of the same relatives and friends who showed up Wednesday to help were back Thursday. They managed to clear debris and mud from the floors over the last two days.

“It looks completely different,” family friend Myles Inokuma said comparing the home from Wednesday to Thursday. He pointed out that an industrial-sized dumpster bin was filled with debris.

“This is local style,” Inokumua said of the many friends and relatives who came to the aid of the Higas.

After greeting the Higas, Inokuma and James “Kimo” Apana, a former Maui County mayor, picked up dustpans and brooms and headed to clean rooms.

Lisa Higa, who is related to Apana, estimated that there were at least 50 people at the home Wednesday. Many were off-duty police officers and firefighters whom she befriended during the GO PINK campaign for breast cancer. She handles merchandizing for the campaign.

She was surprised and touched by Mayor Alan Arakawa, Managing Director Keith Regan and their staffs for making several visits to their home, including one at midnight Tuesday shortly after their rescue. “Who does that?” she asked.

Higa said that the family received a donation from the Arakawa Community Kokua Fund. She had yet to open the sealed envelope to see how much she received.

The household includes Liline Apana, 74, Lisa Higa’s mother. Longtime Maui residents know Apana as the owner of clothing stores Miki’s and the Match. The family has been staying at a friend’s home since the flood.

Lisa Higa still remembers receiving frantic calls from her 10-year-old daughter, Chanel, who was home with her 11-year-old brother, Herbert, and her grandmother Tuesday evening. Lisa Higa had left the home to drop off her other son, Andrew, 13, at judo when she got the call.

Chanel said that the water was up to an outside stairway in the home’s pool area. Lisa Higa thought it was just their pool overflowing, but continued to get calls from her daughter, who told her, “I’m scared.”

“All I can hear is chaos,” Lisa Higa said of the noise in the background of the call.

Water was flowing throughout the property when she returned. As a second lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol Maui 76th Composite Squadron, she has had training in dealing with floods. She drove her her Honda Odyssey van toward the house cautiously hoping it wouldn’t stall or get swept away.

“I had to get to my kids,” she said.

All of sudden things went dark. She thought her van headlights went out but then realized that the lights were underwater.

Unable to reach the home, she told her children in a phone call to head to the roof. Son Herbert got life vests and made sure his sister and his grandmother each had one on.

The children and their grandmother reached the roof by climbing on a rock feature at one end of the pool.

Lisa Higa spotted fire Chief Jeff Murray, who was charging onto the property in his truck. He and other firefighters were able to help the family to safety.

There was enough time for family members to retrieve a few things from the home under the watchful eye of firefighters. Chanel and Herbert grabbed their school bags, she said.

Lisa Higa said that she has lived in the home along the Wailuku River since her high school days in the mid-1980s.

Glassware speckled with mud awaited washing or dumping. As she surveyed her kitchen, she pointed to the cabinets that have to be replaced and other work to prevent mold from growing.

“They got to strip all this out,” she said pointing to places in her kitchen.

Lisa Higa said that she doesn’t know how the family will pay for the damage or the work needed to repair the home.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at