Searchers with dogs looked for bodies in the mud and debris Wednesday after a dam break released a roaring, tree-snapping torrent of water and raised fears about the safety of dozens of similar dams across Hawaii.
Search crews found one body and looked for many as six other people, all from one family.
The century-old earthen dam collapsed before dawn Tuesday after days of heavy rain swelled the Kaloko Reservoir behind it. The water swept away houses on two multimillion-dollar properties in the rugged hills of the island of Kauai, cutting a three-mile path of destruction to the sea.
“From the air, the ground and even the photographs, the devastation is drastic,” Gov. Linda Lingle said during a helicopter tour.
Officials feared another dam downstream might also fail, and crews worked to pump water out of its reservoir. Structural experts arrived to inspect the reservoir, as heavy rains continued across the island and were expected to continue through Friday.
“Everybody’s on edge,” resident Victoria Stamper said.
Other dams examined
State officials were assessing the safety of other dams in the island’s steep hills. Ed Teixeira, state vice director of civil defense, said, “I would characterize this as a growing crisis on Kauai.”
Nearly all of Hawaii’s dams were built early in the past century before federal or state standards existed, according to Edwin Matsuda, an engineer who heads the state’s dam safety programs. Many date to the 1890s, when sugar plantations dotted the islands. Like the dam on the Kaloko Reservoir, many are privately owned earthen structures.
The governor placed responsibility for repairing and maintaining reservoirs on the private owners but acknowledged that the state was failing in its responsibility to monitor the condition of Hawaii’s dams, including 60 on Kauai.
“Are the 60 monitored on a regular basis? They are not,” she said, noting that the state office responsible has only one full-time employee and a part-time clerk.
Kauai Mayor Bryan Baptiste, who joined Lingle on the flight over the island, said there were concerns about some other dams, but officials “believe most are in good shape.”
Safety concerns in October
In October, the American Society of Civil Engineers said at least 22 dams in the Hawaiian Islands had deficiencies that raised safety concerns. The society has been monitoring 130 dams in Hawaii. The dam on the Kaloko Reservoir was not on the list of dams rated “high-hazard” structures that could cause deaths and significant damage if they failed.
When the 40-foot-high dam broke, “you could hear a roar and trees breaking. It was nuts. It was totally loud,” said Brendan O’Connor, who was awakened by the thunderous sound.
Concrete slabs were all that remained where large houses and other buildings once stood in a forested area of high-priced properties.