Fire and water a one-two punch for Hawaii

Damaged homes west of Hanalei Pier in Kauai after record rains and flooding in April.
Damaged homes west of Hanalei Pier in Kauai after record rains and flooding in April. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan

HANALEI, Hawaii -- The Aloha State is accustomed to drawing attention for its natural beauty, but in the past few weeks, it is natural disasters that have brought widespread notoriety. First came the floods on Kauai. Now, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes on the Big Island have attracted worldwide attention.

On May 3, the active volcano Kilauea erupted, sending giant plumes of orange-pink smoke billowing into the sky. There have been several earthquakes, including the strongest on the island in 43 years (a magnitude 6.9), and fissures have opened in the far eastern portion of the island, prompting the evacuation of the Leilani Estates neighborhood.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed Friday due to safety concerns as tremors persisted in the area, and the volcano continues to show increased signs of activity.

The park is roughly 100 miles from the Kailua-Kona resort area, and life on the island's west coast has been relatively unaffected.

On Kauai, the northwest coast is still recovering from a record deluge in mid-April that flooded the area with more than 4 feet of rain in 24 hours. The most remote areas, and some popular attractions like Napali Coast State Wilderness Park and Tunnels Beach, remain cut off from the rest of the island by landslides. Other parts of Kauai, such as Poipu on the southern coast and Old Kapaa Town, show little sign of flooding aside from the posted pleas for donations for "our friends on the North Shore."

Approaching the north coast on Kuhio Highway, travelers first come to Princeville, which peers down on Hanalei from a hill to the east. The area escaped the floods relatively unscathed, and it is business as usual at resorts like the St. Regis Princeville. Crossing the one-lane bridge into Hanalei, the town's condensed collection of shops and restaurants are open and active. Late last week, a wedding party spilled out onto Hanalei Beach for photos in the late afternoon, and the Kalypso restaurant was packed with happy-hour imbibers.

Not everything is all systems go, however. A sweet shop along the main commercial corridor, Chocolat Hanalei, posted a sign announcing it is temporarily closed and "will reopen as soon as the road to our kitchen is opened."

Many visitors to the north are drawn by Hanalei's postcard-perfect, half-moon bay, a sandy stretch of beach with a mountain backdrop. The Hanalei River empties into the bay near the Hanalei Pier and Black Pot Beach, and damage radiates out from where the two converge. 

Severe ground cracks associated with a fissure from the Kilauea eruption opened up in the evacuated Leilani Estates neighborhood on the Big Island.
Severe ground cracks associated with a fissure from the Kilauea eruption opened up in the evacuated Leilani Estates neighborhood on the Big Island.

The pier is shattered close to shore, and the public bathrooms of the adjacent park have slouched into the water. Three homes just west of the pier are severely damaged. Though the beach is in relatively good shape, some debris remains and several brown-water advisories are in effect for the area. Hotel and tour operators in town said bookings for summer were 30% to 40% below normal.

"It's a thin line to walk. I think you have to be honest with people who are thinking of coming," said Scott Olson, owner of Hanalei rental shop Pedal 'N Paddle. "At least for the next month or so, people will be limited in their activities up here. You can't go to Napali. You can't snorkel Tunnels. I usually rent gear for people to go to Anini Beach, but that has a brown-water advisory, too. I don't want to dissuade people, because for some it's just the vibe and atmosphere of Hanalei they come for."

Visitors to the Hanalei area will find plenty of places to stay and eat, but numerous local activities are temporarily closed or inaccessible. Napali Coast State Wilderness Park, a bucket-list item for many nature-oriented travelers, is closed. Also closed are Limahuli Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden system; Haena State Park; portions of Wailua River State Park; and Polihale State Park.

While single-lane access to the Wainiha area has been opened for residents, the full reopening of the Kuhio Highway for two-way traffic is not expected for three to four months, according to Kauai County officials.

Past the road closures, hotels and vacation rentals have been forced to temporarily turn people away. The Hanalei Colony Resort in the Wainiha area has canceled all bookings through July 1 and is housing some aid workers while also serving as one of the community hubs for services.

Conditions on the ground, including beach and road closures, are changing daily, and travelers planning to visit the north shore of Kauai should check in advance regarding specific activities. Hawaii Gov. David Ige recently requested federal disaster aid to bolster the recovery effort.

Already, Kauai residents, business owners and tourism officials are discussing how the north shore community can come out stronger after the cleanup.

"A lot of people think this could be an opportunity to stop and think about traffic and parking to Napali and possibly setting up a shuttle service from Hanalei out to the park," said Simon Potts, owner of Hanalei Surfboard House. "This can also be a chance for some improvements."

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