Cynthia Oi
Under the Sun
Cynthia Oi

Seeking shelter
in nature’s paths

THE housing boom has new structures sprouting all over the islands, no more evident than along Highway 11 between Hilo and Volcano.

Acreage that for years had been abandoned to collections of tall weeds, rusting vehicles and rotting wooden pallets are being energetically cleared and graded. Within days, concrete foundations appear and framing raised, the skeletons of what will soon be someone's home, a place to sleep, eat, argue, watch TV, play Scrabble, love and stash stuff.

Buss'-up buildings are also being resurrected. One -- a small, long-unoccupied plantation-style cottage where ne'er-do-wells often trespassed to laze away wet afternoons under shelter -- has been patched and painted, the yard landscaped, the porch decorated with potted orchids. A family, busy doing the repairs, now occupies the once-forsaken house.

The buy-sell activity has apparently motivated fix-ups, too, even if the places aren't on the market. Formerly scruffy houses sport new paint jobs and refurbished roofs, accumulated junk cleared away, listing fences straightened.

But for all that people do to keep their abodes -- humble or unseemingly extravagant -- in good shape, nature rules.

We can pave it, push it, mold it to fit our needs. We have the know-how to drain wetlands and pour fill over them to create "buildable" ground that will last at least until the floodwaters come.

We can suck oil and tear minerals from beneath the Earth's surfaces, at least until the crusts collapse into the void.

We have the expertise to steer both trickling streams and mighty rivers from their organic paths to quench the thirst of cities and their economies, but often aren't able to envision the destructive consequences. If we do, hubris leads us to the notion we can control them, or we rationalize our actions by claiming the good outweighs the damage.

In Hawaii, the appetite for housing spurs us to cut into the slopes of hills and mountains and snuggle structures in their shadows. Yet when erosion releases boulders and landslides, we are surprised and horrified.

Land scarcity and the desire to reside oceanside offer defense for construction at water's edge, but seawalls and groins, no match for the power of ordinary waves and tides, extend frail protection against storms, hurricanes like Katrina and massive tsunamis whose only certainties are that they will come someday.

Most of Hawaii's economic quarters lie within areas prone to tsunami inundation. On Oahu, evacuation zones include Waikiki's hotels and commercial buildings, the Marine base in Kaneohe, the reef runway and segments of Honolulu airport, the Kahe point power plant, some of Sand Island's industrial lands, Kewalo Basin and Ala Moana as well as every acre makai of coastal highways.

Still, in denial of nature's force, we continue to build.

Ask the Hawaii Community Development Authority whether it believes producing 65-foot-high structures at Kewalo Basin will make them strong enough to withstand a hurricane or tsunami. Ask developers throwing up homes on lava fields laid fresh by flows from Mauna Loa if cinderblock and lumber will turn aside new streams of molten rock.

We need only look at New Orleans, Biloxi and the Gulf Coast region for a preview of what Hawaii can anticipate. No matter how sorrowful the situation, few besides President Bush can claim New Orleans' destiny of ruin was unexpected.

No doubt that city will be rebuilt. Human intractability, economic necessity and devotion to New Orleans' unique character will neutralize the enormous cost, a reckoning that will consider nature, but only in futile terms of keeping it at bay.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at: coi@starbulletin.com.

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