One year after historic floods, Kauai residents cautiously rebuild

"Nobody was really prepared for it. The height of that flash-flood water, the swiftness, the velocity it came down — it’s like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime."
Image: Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama's family's farm
Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama estimates it will take up to three years for her family's farm to recover their crops following record rainfall on the islands of Kauai and Oahu in April 2018.Audrey Cleo Yap

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Audrey Cleo Yap

HANALEI, Hawaii — Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama is well-versed in how to rescue her family’s farm from floods. After all, she’s been practicing since she was 6, when she learned to drive a tractor. During evacuation drills growing up, she and her father, Rodney, would each jump on a tractor on the family’s 55-acre wetland taro farm in the Hanalei Valley on the island of Kauai.

“And two by two, we would take the tractors up the back of this mountain side and park it, higher from the flash-flood zone,” Haraguchi-Nakayama said.

But despite her preparedness as a sixth-generation farmer — and routinely encountering wet weather on the island, one of the rainiest places in the world — she said little could have readied her for the torrential rain and flooding the island experienced last year when a heavy storm system pounded both Kauai and the island of Oahu, starting April 13.

According to the National Weather Service, Kauai’s north shore received almost 50 inches of rain, setting a new national record for most rainfall within a 24-hour period.

Harrowing images of the aftermath showed the extent of the storm’s damage, which included bison displaced onto the beach from a flooded ranch and houses drowning under muddy brown water.

Debris and fallen pine and albizia trees raked through the Haraguchis’ fields, uprooting anything recently planted, including already-delicate taro roots. Haraguchi-Nakayama and her family also incurred extensive damage to their farmhouse and nonprofit agrarian museum for the Ho‘opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill, a historic mill that dates back to the 1800s, listed as the last standing rice mill in the state of Hawaii.

In the days after the floods, Haraguchi-Nakayama recalled wading through the farm’s office, attempting to salvage documents, photographs and artifacts. Tilapia displaced from the overflowing Hanalei River would swim by her.

Their food truck, an ancillary business, flooded. At one point, her mother, Karol, broke out into hives from mold that had crept up inside of what remained of the farmhouse. While clearing out debris that had rolled onto the taro fields, Haraguchi-Nakayama herself punctured her foot by stepping on a nail, which required a tetanus shot.

“Nobody was really prepared for it. The height of that flash-flood water, the swiftness, the velocity it came down — it’s like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Haraguchi-Nakayama, who is in her 30s. “Nothing in my father’s lifetime or my grandfather’s either — and he’s 97. Everybody was caught off guard.”

That includes beekeeper Mike “Uncle Mike” Yulo. After the first rains, Yulo raced to the farm in Kealia on the east side of the island where he kept his beehives from which he harvests to make teas and desserts that he sells at farmers markets and to local restaurants. Since his honey house was low to the ground, he anticipated it would flood and wanted to salvage as much honey as he could.

“Right when I had the last bucket in my truck, I felt the water on my feet, on my knees and my hips. And then I knew. I watched my honey house wash away,” Yulo, 65, said. As he started to drive away, a rush of water overwhelmed his truck, lifting it up from behind and forcing it into an irrigation ditch. Yulo crawled out of his truck’s window to escape and grabbed onto a bucket of honey, using it as a buoy until he could safely get to higher ground. The whole ordeal happened within 15 to 20 minutes, he said.

Not far away and on the same farm in Kealia, Christy Wong and her husband, Keola, scrambled to save the animals at their Kauai Animal Education Center, an animal sanctuary frequented by local school children. Wong said she watched in horror as one structure on the property flipped over, trapping baby goats and sheep. In all, the center lost 46 of the 157 animals in its care.

“The reality of what happened opened a lot of people's eyes up to, ‘Whoa, this can happen, this will happen, and how are we going to fix it?’” Wong said of the community’s effort to clear roadways, help those scrambling for housing, and even wrangle lost bison. “Nobody waited for the Coast Guard or federal funding. My family was down there doing it.”

An incremental recovery

The Morning Rundown

Get a head start on the morning's top stories.

According to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, last April's floods caused an estimated $20 million in damage to public properties and more than 500 homes were affected. On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump approved federal disaster assistance funding via the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help state and local efforts.

But an initial count of damaged homes did not meet FEMA’s threshold to allow Kauai residents to apply for individual assistance funds from the agency, prompting Hawaii Gov. David Ige to write a five-page letter to the agency with an updated count on homes affected in both Kauai and Honolulu counties on June 13, two months after the floods had occurred.

Between both islands, the letter stated, 760 homes were affected, with 176 incurring major damage; 72 were on Kauai. On June 27, residents whose primary home was affected could apply for individual and household assistance funds. To date, FEMA has approved more than $1.5 million in individual and household assistance for Kauai and Honolulu counties.

Richard Morris looks at the flood damage to his sister's home, in Hanalei, Kauai on April 16, 2018. Heavy rain and flooding caused extensive damage to both the north and south parts of the island.Jamm Aquino / Honolulu Star-Advertiser via AP file

In the days and weeks that followed, communities islandwide implemented a grassroots all-hands-on-deck strategy, with local organizations and nonprofits banding together to provide housing and food assistance. Organizations like the Kauai County Farm Bureau set up an information center for local farmers to find out how to apply for loans and access donated funds. The efforts, Kauai County Mayor Derek Kawakami said were heartening. But it also highlighted deficiencies in the island’s emergency response.

“We’ve identified areas, of course, where we need to improve. One, we just have to have a clear channel of communication between government and nongovernmental organizations,” said Kawakami, who was elected last November,

He added that there was also a recognized need to have mental health experts available immediately because of the stress that families encounter during disasters like the flooding. “We need to have that counselor out there talking to our children, talking to those families that have lost everything,” he said.

For residents like Lanae Anakalea, applying and waiting for federal funds felt like too overwhelming a process especially when she was looking for immediate housing for her and her family, which includes two young children, 5 and 8.

“It wasn’t like our house flooded, and the floodwaters went away and we were at home. We were bouncing around for six weeks trying to figure out what to do with our kids and still work,” Anakalea said.

Flooding along Kauai's Hanalei Bay, Hawaii on April 15, 2018.Brandon Verdura / U.S. Coast Guard via AP file

She and her family live in Wainiha, a residential community on the northwest coast of Kauai that continues to be impacted because of repairs to Kuhio Highway, a main vein that connects the southeast and northwest parts of the island.

Areas of the highway near the most northwestern communities of Wainiha, Waipa and Haena were especially hit hard. To facilitate ongoing repairs, the Hawaii Department of Transportation instituted a convoy schedule in November, designating when residents can travel to and from the area, which is still restricted to residents only.

According to HDOT Deputy Director of Highways Ed Sniffen, significant challenges to repairing the road — which experienced some 14 landslides — include the damage incurred by three bridges (Waikoko, Waipa and Wailoli) that had to be repaired in order for vehicles to transport heavy construction materials. In all, Sniffen said, Kuhio Highway will undergo some $80 million worth of repairs, 90 percent of which is federally funded.

The reality of what happened opened a lot of peoples' eyes up to, 'Whoa, this can happen, this will happen, and how are we going to fix it?'

He anticipates the repairs to be completed this month, around the one-year anniversary of the floods. The convoy schedule will remain in place until repairs are completed and the road can be safely reopened.

“Having contractors work around this convoy schedule is difficult at best. Asking the residents to restrict their times to these convoy schedules is also very difficult. So we really appreciate both sides, the contractors and the residents, for making these adjustments to hit this balance to get this done sooner rather than later,” Sniffen said.

Still, residents like Anakalea worry that in the event of another natural disaster — such as a tsunami — evacuating could be difficult. Anakalea herself experienced the challenges last December when she had to undergo an emergency appendectomy and timed her trip to Wilcox Hospital, an hour-and-a-half away, with the outgoing convoy schedule (the nearest medical care facility, an urgent care center, was not equipped to perform the procedure).

“I was like, my options are I wait for the convoy and drive myself, or am I that bad off that I call an ambulance to drive me simply because I can’t wait for the convoy,” Anakalea said. “I find it comical that I had to plan my physical state around the convoy.”

‘We need to keep moving forward’

Back in the Hanalei Valley, Haraguchi-Nakayama continues to tend to her family’s taro farm, manually clearing out invasive weeds and apple snail larvae that have popped up in the months following the floods. The family’s 55-acre property was completely submerged, a veritable death sentence for the delicate taro, also known as kalo, a staple food in Hawaiian culture and the basis for poi. Her 97-year-old grandfather still visits the farm twice a day.

Invasive weeds and apple snail larvae popped up in the months following the April 2018 storm that flooded Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama's family's farm, which was completely submerged under water due in part to overflow from the Hanalei River.Audrey Cleo Yap

The ecosystem on the Haraguchi farm is particularly delicate as the land is shared with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge, where endangered nene, also known as Hawaiian geese, nest. Trespassers, often curious tourists taking photos, can be a problem; following the floods and, later, Hurricane Lane which swept through last August, Haraguchi-Nakayama said she counted more than 200 people.

She estimates that it will take up to three years for her family’s farm to recover their crops, in large part because of the taro plant’s growth cycle, which takes between 12 and 16 months. Growing taro is also labor intensive, since all stages of it — planting, weeding and harvesting — is done by hand. Many of the women on the Haraguchi side of the family, she said, have suffered miscarriages because of the intense nature of farm work.

To keep revenue coming in, the Haraguchis have been hosting flood recovery ecotours and educational programs for local schools and farmers from all over the world. The lunch truck is also back up and running (the veggie burger with taro hummus is especially popular).

Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama's family's food truck, an ancillary business to their farm, was flooded during the April 2018 storms that brought almost 50 inches of rain within a 24-hour period on Kauai's north shore. One year later, the truck is running again.Audrey Cleo Yap

For Yulo, the beekeeper, and Kauai Animal Education Center founder Christy Wong, moving forward has meant relocating entirely. Yulo, who estimated that he suffered close to $50,000 in damages, has found a new home for his beehives in Lihue, south of where he once housed them. Business is picking up, he said, as he is able to honor his contracts with local restaurants and is even in the process of opening up his own restaurant.

Wong moved her nonprofit animal education center to a seven-acre property in Kapahi, inland from its original location in flood-prone Kealia. The animal count is up to 113, made up of goats, pheasants, geese, pigs, horses and rabbits, among others. The center was recently donated a 40-foot-long shipping container that will serve as an emergency shelter for Wong’s charges, a sort of “Noah’s ark” in the event of another flood.

Christy Wong, executive director of the Kauai Animal Education Center, and her husband moved the non-profit center to a new location in Kapahi, inland from its original location in Kealia, following a storm that nearly destroyed the animal sanctuary.Audrey Cleo Yap

The threat of inclement weather looms large over Kauai, home to one of the wettest spots on earth, Mt. Waialeale, which receives almost 500 inches of rain annually. It’s also why Hawaii’s fourth largest island is nicknamed the “Garden Island”: its lush tropical greenery has made it the idyllic backdrop for films such as “Jurassic Park” and “South Pacific.”

“Water touches every part of this island,” Wong said. And she and her family are ready. “We know how to source from the land. It’s not like, ‘No Costco, what do we do?’”

For Haraguchi-Nakayama, the sixth-generation farmer, the spirit of recovery is embodied by a slogan on a shirt she often wears: “Keep calm and kalo on.”

“No matter what happens,” she said, “we need to keep moving forward.”

Follow NBC Asian America on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.