Maui’s 1991 brush with totality a bust

Twenty-six years ago, the total eclipse on Maui was a bust.

On July 11, 1991, it was cloudy in Kaupo, on Maui’s southeast side, which was in the path of totality.

The weather frustrated scientists atop of Haleakala. Maui residents and visitors all over the island were disappointed when cloudy skies blocked views of the historic event.

“It was a gloomy day for a lot of people,” said Kaupo resident Linda Domen, recalling the day when thousands showed up in the sparsely populated southeast Maui location wanting to view the total eclipse.

“We were the spot,” she said. “My place was packed.”

A story in The Maui News on July 12, 1991, quoted then-Managing Director Richard Haake saying there were around 300 to 500 vehicles in the Kaupo area and about 3,000 people.

“We were doing coffee in the morning and doughnuts. We brought in some pastries, (and) chili and rice,” Domen said, unable to recall if food was sold in connection with her Kaupo Store or if she gave the grub away.

Science experts and astronomers were disappointed, but Domen said that “some of us made the most of it.”

Hawaii was the only state in the U.S. to be part of the 1991 total eclipse. It was the last time a solar eclipse shadow passed over part of the United States. On Monday, North America will have its chance to witness totality when daytime darkness falls over 14 states from the west to east coast.

Hopefully, Americans won’t have to struggle like Maui residents, visitors and scientists did 26 years ago.

Using their sun peeps, Domen and others kept their eyes fixed on the sky as clouds thinned and thickened, hoping to see something.

“We tried every angle,” she said.

While the finer details of the eclipse could not be seen because of the cloud cover, Domen said some of the eclipse was visible through the clouds.

“When we looked through the eclipse viewers, it diffused some of the clouds and we were able to see something,” she said.

But overall, she added: “We didn’t have any of that effects of an eclipse that (people) wanted to see, if it had been clear. Some people felt it was a flop.”

That was true for avid stargazers such as Rebecca Sydney of Olinda and Mike Herbert of Kihei, who were both heading last week to Madras, Ore., to be in the path of totality for Monday’s eclipse.

“Our tents were in 3 inches of water,” Sydney recalled her camping experience in Kaupo in 1991. “It was so cloudy. I was kind of bummed.”

But she said she saw some effects of the eclipse, remembering darkness falling over the area in Kaupo.

“It felt like twilight.”

But that was not enough.

“I could not see the disk of the sun. It was totally obscured,” she said.

Herbert worked at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali in 1991, and he said he “drove like a madman” on July 11 after his shift to try to get a good view of the eclipse.

“I got right near the Puunene Mill. It was a small kine opening in the sky,” he said. “I kind of could tell it was an eclipse.”

But when the effect was gone, Herbert said he asked himself, “When’s the next one?”

University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy research associate Garry Nitta was at the Mees Solar Observatory atop Haleakala in 1991.

He said the cloud cover during the 1991 eclipse was disappointing because many researchers and scientists “worked hard up until that point.”

But now Nitta and other experts are back to viewing Monday’s eclipse on U.S. soil again. Nitta is helping set up telescopes in Alliance, Neb., a town in the path of totality.

Former Maui resident Wendee Nishimura, who was 11 at the time, went to the Big Island in 1991 to be in the path of totality. There, too, clouds hampered viewing, but she was able to see the eclipse with some clearing in the sky.

“It was neat and eerie,” the 37-year-old Oahu resident recalled. “All of the birds flew away or weren’t chirping and then when the eclipse was over, all the animals went back to normal like nothing happened.”

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

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