After catastrophic Hurricane Iniki, Kauai built stronger and smarter

Kauai now has a modern Emergency Operations Center in Lihue. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Kauai now has a modern Emergency Operations Center in Lihue. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
During Iniki, visitors and resident took refuge anywhere they could -- including in hotels.
During Iniki, visitors and resident took refuge anywhere they could -- including in hotels.

KAUAI, (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hurricane Iniki, which struck Kauai 25 years ago this week, remains the most powerful hurricane to hit the state in modern history.

It's also the costliest, with about $2 billion in damages on Kauai alone.

County leaders say it took about a decade for the island to completely recover.

The morning after Iniki slammed into Kauai, former Mayor JoAnn Yukimura says she surveyed the islandwide destruction from a helicopter.

"You could just see all the roofs torn off. The Na Pali coast looked like it had aged a thousand years because it was just brown. None of the greens and blues you normally see," said Yukimura.

The massive Category 4 storm damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the island's homes and buildings.

It knocked down thousands of utility poles, cutting off power.

"We lost probably a good one-fourth of all of our transmission and distribution poles and lines. There was no way to get the power out so none of our customers had power," said Ed Nakaya, who worked for Kauai Electric at the time.

It took the utility more than two months to restore the grid to all neighborhoods, but some families still spent the holidays in the dark.

"Homes were very damaged. It was not safe for every home to take power when power came in. There were people, families that maybe never had power until sometime early 1993," Nakaya said.

The labor department, meanwhile, says unemployment rose to 20 percent. Visitors stopped coming.

"Tourism of course dropped off the edge of the Earth. That was a real challenge for us," said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau.

Schools slowly began bringing teachers and students back to class. At Wilcox Elementary School, counselors were on campus to help everyone cope with the trauma.

"I remember when just the slightest downpour, just a drizzle, it just provoked so much fear. Something we didn't have to go through before," said teacher Karen Joto.

All these years later, the lessons of Iniki remain — and county leaders say they are now better prepared for a catastrophic storm.

The Kauai Emergency Management Agency has a modern emergency operations center, equipped with the latest weather forecasting technology, public alert systems, and multiple backup communications.

Building codes are more strict. The island's electrical grid has been hardened.

But there is still not enough emergency shelter space.

"The number of shelters and our capacity statewide has unfortunately not been able to keep up with the population growth," said Elton Ushio, Kauai Emergency Management administrator. "We have 25,000 estimated visitors on island. That is a huge number on top of our resident population to deal with."

Ushio says the county has been working to retrofit more buildings into safe shelter spaces, but hasn't had enough money.

He says the public plays a major role in ensuring the island is ready for the next big disaster because readiness begins at home.

"Anything that each family and each individual can do to make themselves better prepared, more resilient, will be a big help to all of us," he said.

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