Remembering Iniki

By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
Several buildings in Hanapepe have been left unrepaired
since the 1992 hurricane, and many others are unoccupied.
But economists say most of the woes on Kauai are
the result of the sagging state economy.

Iniki’s economic
impact fading

Things are still bleak on the
Garden Island, but not much more so
than the rest of the state

By Trish Moore

Five years after Hurricane Iniki, there is little reminder of the storm that left the island looking like a crumbled cracker.

Homes have been rebuilt, business has revived, most hotels are back and the island's green lushness has regenerated.

And the economy doesn't look much different anymore from the rest of the state, according to Leroy Laney, chief economist for First Hawaiian Bank.

Which is to say it's better than a few years ago, but still pretty bleak.

The official unemployment rate hovers around 10.5 percent. Most say the actual number is at least twice that, if not more. There are almost 1,900 fewer jobs on the island than before the storm.

The visitor industry continues to coax tourists back. The visitor count is rising -- 969,000 in 1996 -- but still remains below pre-Iniki levels of 1.2 million.

Even so, most folks on Kauai are optimistic.

"Having a hurricane in the back of peoples' minds helped them see how bad things can get and how much better they are today," said small-business owner Jane Esaki McClaran.

"It represents some sort of benchmark for their progress. It almost seems like a happy ending for businesses surviving today."

McClaran and her husband Peter publish the Kaua'i Business Report out of their home in Kalaheo.

"If you saw the island after the storm, you would think there's been amazing progress," Laney said.

For the first couple of years after the storm, almost $2 billion was poured into the island economy from insurance settlements and federal and state disaster relief. It was an artificial boom that didn't last long.

The real woes started in early 1995. "That's when it hit everyone that the economy really sucked and that it wasn't going to get better," McClaran said.

The only answer was to just hang on and work harder.

For Bernard Medeiros, 51, that has meant working longer hours with virtually no days off. Medeiros Farms supplies fryer chickens and beef to local residents, restaurants, and institutions. It also used to sell eggs. But that was before the storm wiped out half his chicken flock.

The farm, started by Medeiros' father in 1931, has six full-time workers -- down from the 25 before Iniki. Medeiros and his sisters have had to make up much of the difference themselves.

"What else am I going to do?" he asked. "I can't quit because no jobs anywhere else."

Anson Lardizabal, 32, a state social worker says he has had no luck looking for opportunity in private industry.

"There's a demand for social services here, but there's no influx of money to provide them," Lardizabal said.

However, some say they're starting to see light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Realtor Ed McDowell said he is getting more inquiries in leasing commercial space and rental housing, and mainland investors are buying more vacation condos and second homes.

"There's a good spirit of optimism among Kapa'a business owners," said McDowell, who is president of the Kapa'a Business Association.

In fact, many Kauai residents are not really interested in talking about the storm anymore -- especially those in the visitor industry.

Rather than a case of denial, it's a desire to move on and stop blaming the storm for the island's economic troubles, said Jeff Culverhouse, manager of Ching Young Village shopping center in Hanalei. "People are tired of hearing about (Iniki)," he said.

Continued talk of the hurricane tends to create a "psychological perception that something's wrong here," MacDowell said.

"We're up and running, but people don't know it."

But for some, the memory hasn't quite faded.

"I guess I still think about it every day," said Medeiros. "I keep thinking if it wasn't for that damned hurricane."

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