Rob Parsons

Is Maui Ready for a Hurricane?

The short answer: no

by Rob Parsons

August 13 , 2009

As I write this, the remaining bluster of former-Hurricane Felicia is churning steadily toward Hawaii. It shall soon be known whether it will smack Maui with tropical storm fierceness, or if we're merely in for a few wet days.  

Much like Hurricane Flossie two years ago, Felicia's lack of stamina may be lulling the community and disaster preparedness experts into a false sense of security. Sure, we stocked up on canned goods, batteries, candles and TP. But really, hurricanes hit Hawaii only once in a blue moon, right? And even when one does hit, with all the emphasis on renewable energy and food sustainability, surely we're prepared for the worst, aren't we?

It's been 17 years since Iniki buzz-sawed houses and resorts on Kauai, changing life on the Garden Isle for years. But we are early in the tropical storm season of an El Nino year—the same weather cycle that brought Iniki. 

With that in mind, it's time to examine our ability to cope with a weather disaster, and to draw lessons from the last time a sizeable tempest shattered our paradisiacal tranquility. 

The "Storm of 1980" was a potent winter gale, a Kona low-pressure cyclone that brought Maui and all of Hawaii to its knees. The severe weather warnings went out over the nightly news, in the days before the Internet allowed us to view Doppler radar, wind speed projections and satellite photos. As a Maui malahini of a mere two years, I had little clue as to what was in store.

After my day job waiting tables in Wailuku, I drove my old Toyota back to Kuau, as skies darkened and winds began to howl. A roommate called to tell me the restaurant was closing for dinner to brace for the storm. However, he said, they were starting a poker game, and he urged me to drive back to town to join them. Against my better judgment, I did exactly that.

My decision saved me—or rather, my car. Shortly after I left, a neighbor later told me, a huge eucalyptus branch came down on the driveway where I had been parked. By the time the poker posse disbanded, the rain had become a steady downpour.

The storm raged throughout the night, knocking out power. Then, the following day, the skies cleared. This Kona storm wasn't over—not by a long shot—but the break did give us a chance to go out and investigate the damage.

High Street leaving Wailuku toward Waikapu was coned off and closed. Winds sweeping down from the West Maui Mountains had toppled a row of utility poles, and they leaned over the highway at a precarious angle. In Olinda, the eucalyptus trees lining the road had become a massive game of pick-up sticks, played with chain saws and backhoes. Power wasn't restored in Olinda or Hana for 10 days. Tragically, a man was killed when the front lanai of his house collapsed upon him.

Meanwhile, 20-foot surf battered the Kihei and Lahaina shores, plucking boats from their moorings and tossing them onto the beaches. Word came that a co-worker, celebrating his birthday, had tried to pass through flooding near Suda Store. Police were limiting access to vehicles with four-wheel drive or high suspensions. But they couldn't dissuade our friend, driving the used Mercedes-Benz he had just shipped from California, from attempting to reach his party.

As he drove through the intersection, a surge of water from the Upcountry gulch swept him into the drainage outflow and toward the crashing surf. Bobbing like a cork, water cascading over his hood, he soon realized he had to get out of the car or be washed out to sea. He tried to open the door, but water gushed in and slammed it shut. With all his strength, he put his shoulder to the door like an offensive lineman to a tackling dummy, and pushed. The next thing he remembered was being helped into dry clothes in an oceanfront condo, where passers-by had pulled him from the surf. His car is still out there, 30 years later, and has become a curiosity to scuba divers.

What would it take for Maui to truly be prepared for the impacts of a hurricane-strength storm? A de-centralized electric grid would help, with more sites providing regional power generation. Likewise, underground transmission lines, not susceptible to dropping limbs or falling trees, should be installed. Maui Electric's version of "hurricane-proof" facilities are 65-foot towers that march up Kaahumanu Avenue and out Honoapiilani Highway, marring our otherwise scenic vistas.

Water catchment systems could provide backup if water supply lines shut down; many communities also distribute rain barrels to help conserve potable drinking water supplies.

West Maui's main roadways are only feet from the ocean in places, and alternate routes must be built. Of course, people have said that for well over 30 years.

East Maui is similarly vulnerable, and there are dozens of places where heavy rain could bring landslides down upon the Hana Highway—or send the road itself tumbling down the precipitous slopes.

Hospital space is tight, and emergency food supplies are slim at best. A new administration would be wise to assist residents in establishing backyard, community and school gardens, with surplus designated to the Maui Food Bank, as the Haliimaile Community Garden is now doing.

On the bright side, empty hotel rooms could double as emergency quarters for those who lost their homes to hurricane winds.

There's one other item that can't be overlooked in a crisis: beer. Could it be time to open a shop with home-brewing supplies, just in case we need backup for what Anheuser-Busch ships in?

Thankfully it looks like Felicia won't be hitting Maui hard. Shoots brah, you like one 'nutha Bud?