Stories of the Storm
By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor
The storm that drenched Molokai Jan. 28-29 brought record amounts of rain and heavy flooding not seen in decades to the central south shore region. Those in the Kawela and Kapa’akea areas were among those hit hardest, and recovery efforts are still ongoing.
Donna Paoa said her family has been living in the same Kawela location since 1955. The Kawela area sees periodic flooding during heavy rains, particularly near the Kawela Bridge, which acts as a dam when runoff pours down from the mountains, she said.
Despite previous flooding, this time was different.
“It’s happened off and on [in the past] but this was torrential,” Paoa explained. “It was a catastrophic flood.”
Her yard was under water a foot deep, leaving it covered in thick mud and also causing damage to her home.
The Pu’u Ali’i rain gauge near Waikolu reflected record rainfalls during the storm.
“The National Park Service’s Puʻu Aliʻi rain gauge on Molokai had the highest monthly total [in Maui County] of 37.25 inches (295 percent of average), and the highest daily total of 16.68 inches on Jan. 28,” said Kevin Kodama, senior service hydrologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Honolulu Weather Forecast Office. “Although this site has a short period of record going only back to June 2012, the January total was still notable since it was the second highest overall monthly total recorded at this gage, topped only by 48.28 inches in March 2015.”
The Kaunakakai Mauka gauge recorded the wettest January total since 2004, and the Molokai Airport had the highest January rainfall since 2005, according to Kodama.
The storm followed a long period of exceptional drought island-wide, and though many residents say they’re gratitude for the drought relief brought by the rain, damages caused by the high volume of rain over such a short period of time have been extensive.
Along Kamehameha V Highway just east of Kaunakakai, mounds of mud and debris are still piled high. Dump trucks are hauling loads nonstop and bulldozers are in constant service.
Judy Mertens lives on the eastern side of Kamiloloa, where they have owned their home for 40 years.
“It was like a river in our backyard, moving and dangerous,” she recalled of that Saturday. “…And then all night there were police cars because people were having trouble getting through that stretch of the road.”
Mertens is no stranger to occasional flooding.
“It’s happened in the past… so we were kind of prepared for it, but we were not prepared for the strength of the storm and the mud just poured in, and for the first time ever, it got into our garage,” she said. “So our son, who had just gotten out of the hospital with a knee injury, was out there filling sand bags, and our neighbor, who had just had surgery, came over to help him, and here they were in the pouring rain, and the mud just pouring in…”
The aftermath was just as challenging.
“The mud was more than a foot and a half deep and… we couldn’t get out of the driveway,” she said. “My husband is now quite ill and to get him to the emergency room, we had to walk down to a vacant lot and out that way because we couldn’t get through our yard.”
Mertens said friends and neighbors came to the rescue and helped move some of the deepest mud with a backhoe, but the cleanup process continues.
“We now know, we’re going to hang onto the sand bags in case that happens again and be prepared,” she laughed. “For the first time, houses were flooded that had never been flooded before. We’ll all be better prepared the next time — I guess that’s the best lesson we’ve gotten.”
Not far from Mertens’ house, Ali’i Fishpond and the headquarters of local nonprofit Ka Honua Momona was another epicenter of mud. KHM Executive Director Tiani Puaa Kawaauhau-Cook said, via email, that she checked on the pond around 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning but didn’t stay long, as water was already rushing into the area.
“While driving through the river, you could feel the power of the river moving the truck to the opening of the river bank,” she said. When staff returned after the storm, the area was a mud pit.
“The aftermath broke our heart! Because with just a two person staff, we just finished cleaning the loko i’a the day before from the storm in December,” she said. “This last storm was the heaviest and the most damaging rainfall we’ve had. But it does tell us that our mauka isn’t healthy like before.”
KHM is asking for donations to replace equipment that got damaged by the storm, as well as helping hands during a community workday on Feb. 18 at Ali’i Loko I’a at 9 a.m.
Ron Kimball said he can remember three times, in the more than three decades he and his wife Camie have lived in their Kawela home along the shoreline, that it has gotten badly flooded. But this storm, it was the mud that was different.
“In all the years, this was the only time the mud literally filled this whole area,” said Kimball, tapping the cement of their carport showing how high it came. “When the water subsided, this whole area was about a foot of mud all in here… We never ever had this kind of mud.”
The Kimballs live adjacent to a county public beach right of way, and as the river of water rushed toward the ocean, it dug a massive hole by the shoreline. The Kimballs notified the county but have yet to get a response, and Ron is concerned for the safety of the boaters, fishermen and families who use the beach access.
The water was flowing into the hole like a waterfall, they said.
“It was like Niagara Falls,” described Camie. “I’ve never seen it so bad… there was a log out there, it was floating,” she said, motioning towards the highway. “A few cars ventured out that day but… it was pretty nasty.”
A video they took that Saturday morning shows water pouring across the road in front of their house and gushing over the eroded edge into a sink hole-like pit in front of the beach access.
Homes in Kapa’akea were flooded and areas of Kalama’ula also experienced high water and damages. Kalama’ula resident Nani Kahinu, whose home also serves as the base of their food business and farm, shared videos on social media of their homestead under water.
Residents are encouraged to report structural property damages related to the January storm to the Maui County Emergency Management Agency by visiting mauicounty.gov/MEMA. However, Maui County officials did not return requests for comment on storm damages or assistance offered to residents.
Residents in the Kawela area have repeatedly contacted officials over the past 20 years asking for solutions to the recurring flood issues, which Paoa and others attribute to factors such as deforestation of the hillsides from deer, lack of catch basins and other devices to mitigate debris and overflow, and poor drainage and lack of free water flow around the Kawela bridge area.
“I would love it if efforts were made to restore mountain ecosystem,” Paoa said.
Despite the hardships faced by residents during the storm, they all echoed gratitude for the assistance they received from friends, family and neighbors.
Though cleanup is ongoing for many, including Paoa, she said it was the helping hands of those who offered aid with their tractors and hand tools, that made the difference for her.
“It’s neighbors helping neighbors. It’s family and friends on smaller islands, we have to count on each other,” said Paoa.
And despite the recurring flooding problems in the area, she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
“We do what we can to work with what we have, and we count on each other,” she said. “This is our home, and family and friends are greater here than anywhere else.”
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