Lessons learned from Iniki
leave officials better prepared
for any future disasters

By Anthony Sommer

LIHUE >> Despite surviving three hurricanes in the previous 35 years, Kauai was not ready for Iniki in 1992, the island's public safety officials admit today.


» A decade after
» Deadly power
» Lingering fear
» First-hand view
» Resort's ruins
» Then and now

The destruction was so much greater than anything that had come before, there was no way to imagine what it would be like.

When (not if) the next hurricane comes, they say, the island will be much better prepared.

But they said the same thing before hurricanes Nina, Dot, Iwa and then Iniki. Kauai has had lots of experience with hurricanes:

>> Hurricane Nina, on Dec. 1, 1957, only grazed the island. The eye passed 120 miles from Kauai, but 92 mph winds and 35-foot waves slammed into the east and south sides of the island. Damage was estimated at $100,000, and every boat in Poipu Harbor was sunk.

>> Hurricane Dot hit Kauai on Aug. 6, 1959, demolishing homes, collapsing businesses and causing $6 million in damage as the eye of the hurricane passed directly over the island.

>> Hurricane Iwa only brushed the island in 1982, but it brushed the island hard. The eye passed 30 miles northwest of Kauai. Thirty-foot waves demolished resorts in Poipu, and 44 of 45 boats moored at Port Allen were sunk. Damage statewide was estimated at $234 million, about one-third of it on Kauai.

The decade between Hurricane Iwa and Hurricane Iniki was the period of the greatest prosperity and development in Kauai's history. Huge new hotels were built. Housing boomed as people flocked to Kauai to work in the growing tourism industry.

By the early 1990s there was a lot more for a storm to destroy.

When Iniki hit on Sept. 11, 1992, the cost to repair the damage was $3 billion. In monetary terms, Iniki was ranked the third most destructive storm in U.S. history.

"When Iniki hit, the county was ill prepared," says Kauai Fire Chief David Sproat, who was a captain at the Hanalei Fire Station in 1992.

"Today everything has been enhanced. Our equipment is better. The structures have been hardened."

Firefighters learned their stations were the first place people would come for help. Similarly, police patrols became mobile emergency centers.

"We try to stock those cars so they can survive for the first 24 hours without coming to the police station if they need to," said Police Chief George Freitas.

Both police and firefighters learned during Iniki that the No. 1 need of emergency vehicles is a huge supply of spare tires.

So many nails had been scattered on the roads from destroyed buildings that county motor pools could not plug flat tires quickly enough.

On a more human level, they also learned that both police officers and firefighters need time to take care of their homes and families. The Kauai Police Department's disaster plan now calls for 12-hour shifts changing at noon and midnight.

"The idea is to give the officers a break that includes both day and night periods," Freitas said. "During Iniki it was common for officers who were given a break completely during daylight hours to come back to work without having had any sleep. They spent their time off working on their homes or their neighbors' houses."

The biggest boost came from police and fire departments on the other islands. Officers and firefighters from all over Hawaii showed up on Kauai to relieve their counterparts at just about the time many were reaching the point of exhaustion.

Kauai Civil Defense Director Mark Marshall notes there still are not enough shelter spaces to hold all the people on Kauai.

"We have 19,300 shelter spaces for a population of 58,000 and 20,000 tourists," he said. Since Iniki the hotels have been rebuilt to withstand high winds and are set back further from the shoreline. Marshall said they are better prepared to take care of their guests.

One of the ironies of Iniki is that one of the worst problems created by Iwa in 1982 -- downed trees and power poles blocking the roads for a long period of time -- was quickly handled by civilians rather than emergency personnel in 1992.

"Almost every guy who had been through Iwa took the same thing with him to the shelters during Iniki: a chain saw. They knew that after the storm they would have to cut their way back to their houses," recalled former Mayor JoAnn Yukimura.

And they did. Every major road on Kauai was open by Sept. 12.

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