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COVID-19 takes lifeguard off Makena beach tower

Black Rock station on hold as Beach Safety Week marked

Lifeguards sit in the tower early Wednesday morning at Baldwin Beach Park, one of the eight beaches currently guarded by Maui County ocean safety officers. Though there are no visitors, ocean safety efforts have taken a hit due to COVID-19. State funding deficits caused a cut in lifeguard services at another beach, Makena State Park, which is now unguarded. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken lifeguards off the Big Beach tower in Makena and thwarted plans to set up a tower at Black Rock, among the two more dangerous beach and ocean sites on Maui, as the state marks Beach Safety Week this week.

There have been a total of 193 drownings in Maui County from 2008 to 2018, including 183 on Maui, seven on Molokai, and three on Lanai, according to the Maui County Ocean Safety Bureau.

Snorkeling and swimming were the top two causes of drownings at 48 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

“Maintaining a healthy respect for the power of the ocean will help ensure your family’s safety for years to come,” said Battalion Chief Jeff Giesea of the Department of Fire and Public Safety Ocean Safety Bureau.

About 73 percent of drowning victims were visitors, the data show.

Youths jump off Black Rock, or Pu‘u Keka‘a, in this photo taken about a year ago. A coordinated effort to put up a lifeguard station in the area known for numerous drownings is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER

Among the more dangerous spots in the visitor resort of Kaanapali is Pu’u Keka’a, or Black Rock, off the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa. A total of 63 percent of the 129 cases of drowning, injury and distress in the Kaanapali area from 2008 to 2016 occurred at Black Rock and south to the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel.

The shoreline further south to the Marriott Maui Ocean Club had 30 percent of the cases and 3 to 5 percent occurred at Kahekili Beach and Hanakao’o Beach. About 80 percent of the total cases in the Kaanapali area were drownings.

At Black Rock, nearly 90 percent of the cases were drownings, according to the data.

Giesea said the biggest ocean threat is “likely the strong current that is often found there,” he said.

“Swimmers and snorkelers, many of whom with marginal swimming ability, can get caught in the current, panic and ultimately drown,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the numbers show a clear need for lifeguard services out there, so, prior to COVID, what was the holdup?

“Of course the answer is complicated, but part of the story is that while there are multiple stakeholders — the state, the county, the private sector — no one entity bears clear responsibility.”

There have been plans to add a tower near Black Rock but those efforts have faced jurisdictional and funding issues. The Ocean Safety Bureau put together a proposal last year at the urging of the Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee and Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, Giesea said.

“It was looking very promising that we would get funding from the state, the county and the private sector to turn this long-awaited vision into reality,” he said. “Then came COVID, and now those plans are on hold.”

In 2017, an effort to move the county lifeguard tower from Hanakao’o to Black Rock was rejected by residents and lifeguards. In 2018, then-mayor Alan Arakawa allocated $1.2 million in the 2018-19 budget to fund lifeguards at Pu’u Keka’a, but those funds were later removed from the final budget, Giesea said.

“The resorts in the area clearly have a stake, and the beach access runs through their property, but they are not in the business of funding long-term government operations,” Giesea said. “Up until just recently, that coordinated, everyone-pulling-together effort never quite materialized and again, along came COVID and with it, for now at least, went the funding we would need to get this project moving again.”

To add a lifeguard tower, equipment and other services in Kaanapali, Giesea ball-parked the initial costs to be about $200,000. It also may cost about $30,000 annually for equipment and replacements and another estimated $820,000 per year in salaries. 

Giesea and Council Member Tamara Paltin, a longtime ocean safety officer on the west side, acknowledged that it will take major coordination and support among the state, the county and the private sector to make the station happen in the future.

Paltin was very hopeful that a partnership could be forged between hotels, the county and state for lifeguard services, but “there really was no room for expansion.”

“I believe there is definitely a need for a lifeguard tower there due to the currents and incidents that often happen at that location (like) shore break injuries, jumping injuries, medical conditions, people on flotation devices getting blown out to sea,” she said.

Despite the dangers at Black Rock, Paltin said the county should focus on restoring lifeguard services at Big Beach, where beachgoers and swimmers often are pounded into the sand by surf. Makena led the state with 40 recorded spinal injuries from 2009 to 2017.

Each county has a state contract for a tower at a state beach, Maui’s being Makena State Park at Big Beach. Paltin said that state revenue is currently “nonexistent” for lifeguard funding at that location, so services were cut April 1 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The silver lining of that dark cloud is that we did have vacant county-funded positions available, so we were able to absorb all of our lifeguards formerly assigned to Makena into other positions at our county beach parks,” Giesea said. “So at least nobody lost their job.”

For Beach Safety Week, which started Sunday, Giesea reminded the public to enjoy swimming, diving, snorkeling and other ocean activities with caution. In the midst of COVID-19, the Department of Health and Maui County ocean safety officers are recognizing drowning prevention efforts across the state, where eight of nine fatal ocean drownings since April were residents.

Only four of the 14 fatal drownings from January through March prior to the pandemic were residents.

Even though there are travel restrictions causing the number of visitors at local beaches to plummet, county officials have seen an increase in residents going fishing and participating in other shoreline and beach activities.

Fatal ocean drownings statewide are projected this year to be about 50 percent lower than the annual average of 82 over the last five years, according to the Health Department. Free diving continues to be one of the most common activities among resident drowning victims, which accounted for nearly half of the 12 fatal incidents between January and July of this year.

When diving, Giesea suggested using the buddy system, bringing a partner along of similar ability and keeping an eye on each other. He reminded beachgoers to “remember that knowing and staying within your limits, and those of your partner, can make the difference between tragedy and a great day in the water.”

There are currently eight guarded beaches, from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily, on Maui at Kanaha; Baldwin; Hookipa; Kamaole Beach Parks I, II and III; Hanakao’o and D.T. Fleming. Hana Bay usually has a tower manned during the Summer and Winter PALS Program days only.

“I think that Maui County ocean safety officers are among the best in the state, and I think that Hawaii ocean safety officers are amongst the best in the world,” said Paltin.

She was an ocean safety officer for about 17 years on Maui, mostly between Hanakao’o and D.T. Fleming before becoming a lieutenant. She had also worked seasonally for about three years prior to that in Hawaii County between Keaukaha and Honoli’i.

She retired in 2018 after winning her West Maui council residency seat.

Back when Paltin was overseeing beaches and ocean activities, she said “it sure did seem like we received the majority of 911 calls” in West Maui, whether there was high surf or high wind or even when the waves were small and flat.

This year, ocean safety education week is dedicated to the late Ray Sanborn, a Hawaii Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee member and long-time water safety advocate, who died unexpectedly last week. Sanborn was a founding member of the advisory committee and contributor to drowning prevention efforts for decades, as well as the president and CEO of Kama’aina Kids, according to a Health Department news release.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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