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Full restoration of botanical garden could take months

Owners hope to partially reopen in a month, though some areas could be closed much longer

A crew works to clear debris from Kula Botanical Garden's property after the Dec. 5-6 storm heavily damaged the longtime Upcountry attraction. Photos courtesy Kevin McCord

The owners of Kula Botanical Garden hope to reopen part of the longtime Upcountry attraction “in a month or so” but estimated that sections of the gardens most heavily damaged in the recent storm could be closed for six months to a year.

The Dec. 5-6 Kona low storm that swept across the state earlier this month sent floodwaters rushing through the three gulches that cross the Kula Botanical Garden’s property, knocking out bridges, taking out a workshop and greenhouse and filling a koi pond with debris.

“The actual damaging part only lasted maybe five minutes or less,” said General Manager Kevin McCord, son of the garden’s founders. “By the time I got there, which was just minutes after it had happened, the water was just running normally like any old storm. But it was the initial wave of mud and debris and rocks and trees and things coming down the mountain that caused all the damage.”

The biggest damage came through the smallest gulch, McCord said. Mud broke through the walls and doors of his dad’s house, swept away a new truck McCord had only had for two weeks and overwhelmed a workshop and greenhouse until “there wasn’t a stick left.”

“It took it down to the concrete,” McCord said. “And then it took my truck and piled it on top of all the other debris. All my tools, my lawn mowers, my weed eaters, everything I need to run the garden was in that shed. So it’s been a process of trying to sift through some of that mud and finding a few tools here and there that are survivable.”

Floodwaters were so strong that they swept away a truck and deposited it on top of a pile of mud and debris. The storm also took out multiple bridges, ponds and the garden’s greenhouse and workshop.

Debris and floodwaters also wiped out the duck ponds and the koi pond; McCord said the ducks survived but the roughly 40 koi, some ranging from 30 to 40 years old, likely did not.

The garden, a popular spot for Christmas tree shopping Upcountry, had just wrapped up sales for the season on the afternoon of Dec. 5, shortly before the storm hit Maui. Most of the available trees had been cut and sold, but some that were awaiting delivery to hotels and restaurants were damaged.

“The third gulch overflowed and ran through all our Christmas trees, so that was the least damaging of the three, but it still left a mess,” McCord said. “It just scattered debris from one end of the property to the other.”

All told, the botanical garden could be looking at damages in “the hundreds of thousands,” including about $100,000 to $150,000 for the house and $100,000 for the destroyed shed, McCord said. Most of the recovery effort so far has centered on cleaning out all the debris, which ranges from tree trunks 2 to 3 feet in diameter and rocks “the size of small cars.”

Once the area is cleared, reinstalling the bridges may only take about a week or two, McCord estimated. However, it could take a couple of months to rebuild the workshop and greenhouse, once a full structure but now just a Costco tent that serves to keep the surviving tools dry.

The botanical garden has been a fixture Upcountry for 50 years, the brainchild of McCord’s father Warren, a landscape architect, and mother Helen, a teacher. In 1968, looking for a place to display Warren McCord’s work and seeing a need for more businesses and attractions Upcountry, the couple set out searching for a piece of land to fit their vision. They were on their way to check out a property when they drove by another parcel that instantly caught Warren McCord’s attention.

“My dad said ‘Stop the car!’, jumped out, hopped the fence and disappeared into the forest and came back an hour later and said, ‘I want this property,’ because it had the gulches and the rock formations and all the things that made it special,” Kevin McCord said.

The McCords approached landowner Kaonoulu Ranch and Oskie Rice, who said they weren’t selling but eventually gave in and allowed the McCords to buy 13 acres. They cleared invasive wattle trees, built terraces and walkways and put in an array of plants. Eventually they approached Rice about buying more land and ended up with 22 acres, on which they opened Kula Botanical Garden in 1971, with a wide array of plants to satisfy the enthusiasts in addition to ducks, a koi pond and aviary to capture the attention of visiting school groups.

The longtime roots of the McCord family and the botanical garden in the Upcountry community spurred a quick outpouring of support when the property was damaged. About 20 to 30 people showed up for workdays on Dec. 11 and 12, helping to scoop out muck and debris, and Kevin McCord hopes to hold another workday on Jan. 8.

“The community’s been awesome, especially some of our close friends have been there,” he said. “They were there every single day for two weeks bringing their friends, and having the community show up and help out has been fantastic.”

At a time when the family should be relaxing and enjoying the post-Christmas tree rush, the work ahead is daunting, “but we also have to count our blessings,” he said.

“No one was injured. There were people in the house at the time, and anyone of us could’ve been standing in front of this wall of mud and debris,” he pointed out.

“All of the physical things can be replaced. It’s sad to see them destroyed, but it would be sadder to have lost or had somebody hurt.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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