Monday, May 7, 2001

Fresh flowers are still being placed at the entrance to
Sacred Falls State Park, which has been closed

Sacred Falls:
2 years after
the tragedy

By Treena Shapiro

Rockslides on the Koolau Mountain Range have killed eight hikers at Sacred Falls and severed the only highway for the Waimea area.

They also have heightened fears that a similar tragedy could occur near the Makapuu Lookout and disrupt life in Waimanalo.

State agencies have started to study the potential for other rockslides along Oahu's roads and hiking trails, but any substantive fixes will be long in coming, as the state awaits comprehensive risk assessments and construction money.

At Sacred Falls State Park, sensitive issues have prevented the state from making any decisions concerning the status of the park.

It has been closed for two years, as of Wednesday, after a portion of the mountainside sheared off and rained boulders and rocks on visitors hiking and sunbathing. The eight deaths and 34 injuries made the natural disaster one of the deadliest in the state's history.

The decision on whether to reopen it will not be made until litigation regarding the May 9, 1999, tragedy has been settled, risk assessment has been completed and community members have had their say.

The rockslide at Sacred Falls in May 1999 killed
eight people. It was one of the state's deadliest
natural disasters.

Larry Remillard, an attorney representing families of four of the deceased and numerous injury victims, said the court has set a September trial date to determine whether the state was liable for the tragedy.

The lawsuit alleges that the state was aware of potential dangers at Sacred Falls and failed to take prudent safety measures.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources declined comment on the status of the lawsuit.

Risk assessment at Sacred Falls and other hiking spots could begin this year, if $250,000 in capital improvement funds approved by the Legislature remains in the state budget. The study will assess popular state trails and parks for the top 10 environmental hazards, according to Curt Cottrell, the Department of Land and Natural Resources' trails and access manager.

Located a valley over in the Hauula Forest Preserve, Maakua Gulch shares similar geographic features with Sacred Falls, prompting the state to close it after the Sacred Falls disaster.

"When we closed Maakua, I was under the impression that it would be for a short time," Cottrell said. However, now he does not foresee the trail reopening any time soon, and most likely not before the state completes its islandwide assessment.

"Maakua's a tough one," Cottrell said, noting that it is the only trail of its kind, allowing hikers to go deep into the geology of the Koolaus, but that in itself presents new dangers, with sheer canyon walls bounding a narrow trail, lots of rock and the possibility of flash flooding.

Although there have been no serious injuries on the trail, "you need a Ouija Board to determine what kind of event could happen tomorrow or 20 years from now," Cottrell said.

While no plans have been made to reopen Sacred Falls State Park, DLNR has put together a community advisory group to begin planning for the future of the almost 1,375-acre area.

Working with the 1978 master plan, much of which was never implemented, representatives from 10 community associations and other groups with an interest in reopening the park have been meeting monthly to come up with a new vision for Sacred Falls.

"I think this advisory group wants very much to go slowly and do it right and have professional advisory in regard to risk assessment ... before we feel comfortable about reopening it," said Cathleen Mattoon, president of the Koolauloa Civic Club and a member of the advisory group now and in 1978.

In addition, Mattoon said the group needs to look at the cultural impacts of reopening the park to determine what is appropriate. "The cultural aspect is dear to our hearts. We've been writing grant proposals to do oral histories of the kupuna in the areas regarding Sacred Falls," she said.

At an advisory group meeting on Wednesday night in Hauula, it was clear that although the members have different ideas about how to reopen Sacred Falls, there is no question in their minds that at least some access should be allowed in the future, even if the state chooses to keep the hiking trail leading up to the waterfall closed.

Makaio Hee, whose family has lived in the Kuliowaa (Sacred Falls) area for seven generations, said he believes that park land has been misused for many years and should be reopened initially to Hawaiians so they can help the land to heal before wider access is allowed.

"We first, we malama (preserve), we do what we have to before we open it to whoever want to malama the place," he said.

Hee and other Hawaiians have entered the park since it closed to make sure the land is protected. Although the grass is overgrown, he said, "I think it's perfect the way it is now. I just like the place be left alone, clean up what we have to clean," he said.

But others, like Patrick Rorie, a representative from the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club, said that tourists re-entering the valley is inevitable. His priority, however, is in reopening the park for hiking. "We would like to see the trail reopened as it used to be, all the way up to the falls," he said.

The club often clears a trail a week before members hike it, and sometimes they notice there has been a new rockfall. "It's spooky ... and it's scary, but at the same time it's an inherent danger, unavoidable," he said. "We don't avoid the areas but we know the danger's there."

As the Sacred Falls rockslide led to DLNR's assessment of hiking trails and state parks, the March 2000 rockslide near Waimea prompted an islandwide study of state highways by the Department of Transportation, which should lead to a comprehensive rockfall management program.

DOT spokeswoman Marilyn Kali said that the department is looking at all the state highways, but of particular interest are sections along the Pali Highway and along Kamehameha Highway near Haleiwa.

The $290,000 study is expected to be completed in August.

Kalanianaole Highway near the Makapuu Lookout has already been identified as an area of concern, and the state last year launched a study to find alternatives for that section of road to protect it from rocks falling from the cliff above.

"It's in the kind of area where you will always have little ones coming down," Kali said. In February the road was closed for two hours while crews removed boulders that had been dislodged from the cliff.

Alternatives include excavating the mountain to create an 8-foot-wide shoulder and rock catchment area, creating a cantilevered roadway by extending the highway over the cliff to make room for a rock catchment area, building an protected cover over the road or constructing a tunnel from the vicinity of Makapuu to the vicinity of Ka Iwi Park.

The project is currently in the survey phase, and design work is not projected to begin until February 2004. As for construction, "the earliest will be five years from now," Kali said.

That is not soon enough for Waimanalo community members who are concerned that a major rockfall could cut off their access to Hawaii Kai, disrupting Waimanalo businesses and circle-island tour companies, some of which stop at Sea Life Park.

"What we want to see is some rather fast action to prevent what could become an economic tragedy. What we're seeing is that it might take as long as four years just to get the preliminary reports in," said Waimanalo Neighborhood Board member Joe Ryan.

Kali said the state would consider some stopgap measures to prevent rocks from falling in the interim, perhaps by removing loose rocks from the cliff. "I think that's an excellent idea," Ryan said. "There's a constant trickle of stuff down the hill."

Ryan said that the state also needs to look at drainage problems, which are causing cracks in the retaining wall. "The road would fall if the foundation is gone," he said.

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