The Aftermath Of Hurricane Iniki -- Kauai's Wounds Heal

KAUAI - The Garden Isle is growing back.

Residents described this place as looking like a "plucked chicken" after Iniki, the worst hurricane in Hawaiian history, struck Sept. 11.

At least three people died, vegetation was stripped bare, more than 14,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, and most of the more than 100 resorts, hotels and condominums were knocked out of business by winds that averaged 145 mph. A Navy instrument on a 1,500-foot-high ridge recorded a gust of 227 mph before it was swept away.

But now this island without seasons is experiencing a spring. Six weeks after the storm, the green came back, repairing the scenic damage with a speed that surprised even those who live here.

The famed tunnel of eucalyptus trees near Koloa, a town on the southern coast, became a tunnel of toothpicks after Iniki struck. Now it is green once more, thousands of new branches sprouting from battered limbs.

Physical reconstruction of the 551-square-mile island (about a quarter the size of King County) is following more slowly. Thousands of roofs still have plastic tarps to keep out the rain, and sheets of plywood cover some windows.

Those restaurants still open are crowded with construction workers - some from the Seattle area - instead of tourists.

Repair crews are swarming like bees on roofs all over the island. Roads and utilities have been almost completely restored despite the snapping of more than 5,000 poles.

As emergency workers leave, freeing rooms, a few resorts are starting to accept tourists. But some island properties were so badly damaged they won't be open until next fall. Depending on who is doing the counting, the island experienced at least $1 billion (federal-government estimate) or $2 billion (county of Kauai) in damage. Loss of tourism revenue is estimated at $250 million to $500 million. Iniki was the third most-damaging hurricane in U.S. history, after Andrew, which struck Florida in August, and Hugo, which devastated parts of the Southeast in 1989.

Travelers who return now will find fewer amenities, scenes of awesome destruction, uncrowded beaches and viewpoints, and mixed emotions from islanders. Kauai residents are eager for the dollars that make up at least 45 percent of the economy, yet distracted by the task of repairing homes and lives.

"We don't want people to feel the island was destroyed, but we want to warn them of our limitations," explained JoAnn Yukimura, mayor of Kauai County. "Some people are cautious about bringing visitors back too soon."

Iniki was the second bad storm in a decade and the fourth in living memory of some islanders. The Poipu Beach area on the south shore, blasted by Hurricane Iwa on Nov. 23, 1982, was ravaged even worse this time.

The Sheraton at Poipu had finished a $22 million renovation of its beachfront side in April. Then Iniki hit, the waves hurling logs and rocks into the oceanside rooms. Now the hotel is planning to rebuild again.

Charles Fletcher, a coastal marine geologist at the University of Hawaii, questions the wisdom of that. Inspecting the coast after the storm, he found salt water penetrated up to 300 yards inland. Waves 25 feet high caused the worst damage. After two bad hurricanes, he said, the state shouldn't allow rebuilding on Poipu within 100 yards of the beach.

That suggestion is unlikely to be taken seriously. Shayda Marciel, a former cashier at the Sheraton, has worked as a security guard at the wounded resort since the storm and, until a week ago, her family lived in a tent in their roofless living room.

She sees no choice but to rebuild next to the ocean. "This is our money maker," she said, gesturing to the scoured rooms and debris-filled swimming pool. "Everyone who comes to Hawaii wants to stay on the beach."

One mistake is not being repeated. After the 1982 hurricane, home-building codes were relaxed for a year to speed reconstruction. Those who took shortcuts paid dearly Sept. 11. This time officials are insisting rebuilders include hurricane clips to hold down roofs, plus other precautions.

Such precautions seem to havehelped Stephanie Reid's home, which escaped Iniki unscathed. Reid, representative for the Westin Kauai, and her contractor husband, Michael, built their house with, among other things, the proper clips and hurricane glass.

Iniki has given fast-developing Kauai an enforced breather to consider growth issues. The disaster pulled the island's 50,000 residents together as never before, but also made plain the island's dependence on outside money and supplies, the risks of a highly developed tourism economy, and its vulnerability to hurricanes.

Yukimura is the first mayor to be elected on Kauai who has expressed some skepticism of development, winning on her third try. Yet she made a trip to Japan recently to promote tourism recovery. While only 10 percent of Kauai's visitors are Japanese, all the major resorts are owned by Japanese corporations.

Accordingly, some complain she is too cautious in urging a return to tourism; others say the trip to Japan was premature when some islanders are still homeless.

"She shouldn't be in Japan," said Mari Ojas, 19, a former hula instructor at the Coco Palms resort who has been living in a tent with her 2-year-old daughter since the hurricane. Ojas survived the storm by wedging a table into a corner and crawling under it with her child after the walls on her rental home blew away. "Nobody wants tourists right now anyway. Everyone is stressed out."

But Ojas' plight is an exception, and, with government aid, she is expected to be moved to a hotel soon. Most islanders have found housing, and many of the remaining tents are occupied by construction workers trying to save on rent. The county wants to impose a $750-a-month camping fee to clear parks of squatters before tourists return.

That disturbs Octavia Nakamura, who organized and represents the campers at Niumalu Beach Park near Lihue. There are still 54 tents and 82 people in that camp, one of nine such camps. Seven tents at Niumalu hold homeless Kauai families; the rest hold construction workers.

"These guys are not here to get rich, they are here to help us put the island back together," she said of the workers. The county is scrambling to try to find alternative housing for the workers.

Many islanders are surprised at how swiftly they are putting their lives back together. If there is such a thing as a "proper" disaster, Iniki was probably it.

While there are plenty of tales of individual hardship - the shutdown of tourism pushed the unemployment rate to 25 percent by October - many Kauaians praised the response of both the government and the insurance industry in providing aid and settling claims. "Mahalo" (thank you) signs dot the island, singling out every entity from the military to God for praise.

"They were phenomenal," Paulette Brutner, an employee at the Kokee Museum, said of the Army and Red Cross.

The Steven Spielberg production crew filming the movie "Jurassic Park" was trapped by the hurricane at the Westin Kauai and rode out the storm in the ballroom with other guests. The next morning, the crew cleared the road into the hotel, arranged for supplies from California, and loaned the hotel the portable generators they had used for jungle filming.

Such mutual aid was typical. Neighbors shared tarps, stoves, lanterns, showers, water or anything else they could pool.

"After a disaster like this, people tend to become closer," said Elizabeth Kawamura, public-relations representative for the two-year-old Hyatt Regency Kauai.

For their part, aid workers who have come to Kauai return the islanders' praise.

Wallace Stickney, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the patience and self-help of the residents were among the best he had ever seen. He said the coordination between local and federal agencies was a "textbook" disaster response.

Meanwhile, FEMA has distributed more than $250 million and the Small Business Administration $138 million. So much insurance money has been paid out on Kauai that Hawaii's insurance companies say they're essentially going under and issuing no more policies, a plan that has temporarily halted the real-estate and mortgage markets. Officials believe the situation is temporary.

The flood of money has opened up a rush of construction, cleanup and claims-processing jobs. Many Kauaians already are forced to hold more than one job because of the high cost of living.

"Most who wanted jobs have found them," said Marciel, the Sheraton employee, who is a lifelong resident of the island.

The good news in the short run is that much of Kauai will be rebuilt in the next year. The more ominous long-term worry is whether hurricane fears will keep tourists away.

Tourism in Hawaii has been depressed since the Gulf War because of the recession. Other islands, however, have seen bookings surge since Iniki caused Kauai visitors to switch to other resorts.

In shortest supply are building materials and good contractors. Both skilled labor and construction supplies specially suited for the tropics must be imported, much of it from the Pacific Northwest.

Typical of the human imports is John Dodge, a wallboard finisher from Seattle working 60-hour, seven-day weeks to reopen the oceanside Mokihana condominium and Bullshed restaurant in Kapaa.

Dodge is one of more than 15 Seattle craftsmen hired by Brad Fleeson of Fleeson Constructors on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill. Fleeson said he bid the job by studying aerial photographs of the ravaged unit published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

A different kind of repair job is going on in the natural world. Some Kauai palms look as blasted on top as those in films of World War II, and occasional patches of fragile trees look like they were hit by artillery.

More common are stripped trees sprouting new growth, or dead ones with a fast-rising understory once more cloaking the mountains in green. Kauai is the wettest and lushest of the Hawaiian islands, and the ecosystem is showing its resilience.

The problem, explains Tom Telfer, district wildlife biologist for Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources, is that the double-blow of Iwa and Iniki has knocked out native species and given non-natives, such as the weed clidemia, room to take over. While many areas of virgin jungle persist, it is becoming rarer.

Landslides on the steep and spectacular Na Pali coast to the north may also take a long time to repair, he warned.

Still, "It is remarkable how fast nature recovers from these things," he said. "By the time the hotels are rebuilt, it will be difficult for tourists to notice the damage."

Kauaians remain remarkably cheerful. The main shopping center is crowded with Christmas shoppers and Santa Claus decorations and Christmas trees appear all over the island.

"It's just another experience in life," said Henry Ohara, sitting in the half-gutted ground floor of his $7 million beachfront home at Poipu, his second-story lanai broken off to topple onto the sand. "I don't mind it. It's a challenge."

He invited visiting soldiers into his wave-battered living room, declining their offer to share emergency rations, and later marveled at the emptiness of his beach.

"At first you're depressed," he said. He misses not seeing the typical sunbathers outside his windows each day. But he can take his surfboard out into a near-empty cove now. "You realize that in a year it will be back like it was," he said. "And green things grow back even faster than plasterboard."