More than five years after Hurricane Iniki roared through here at 200 mph, the once-prosperous "garden isle" of Kauai is struggling to recover from the physical and psychological wounds caused by the devastating mid-Pacific storm.
Although Kauai's leaders hailed the long-delayed reopening of the plush Sheraton Kauai resort on Poipu Beach earlier this month as a turning point, three of the island's five major hotels remain closed without reopening dates. All suffered heavy damage from Iniki, which on Sept. 11, 1992, destroyed or damaged most of the structures on this 627-square-mile island.
Kauai remains the most verdant island in the Hawaiian chain. "South Pacific" and other movies with Pacific settings were filmed at Hanalei on the north shore. Rugged Waimea Canyon on western Kauai, called "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific" by Mark Twain, remains a challenge for hikers and an attraction for tourists despite the destruction of shallow-rooted Hawaiian trees by Iniki.
But business and political leaders acknowledge that the road to recovery has been a difficult one.
"In some ways we've recovered more than most people realize, but in other ways we haven't really recovered at all," said Ron Hahn-Morin, manager of the Embassy Vacation Resort at Poipu Point on Kauai's southern tip.
Hahn-Morin said Kauai still has "walking wounded" who were emotionally damaged by Iniki or by the struggle to rebuild their homes and find new jobs.
Kauai's experience may have relevance throughout the West in a year when storms caused by El Nin~o have battered Acapulco and Baja California in Mexico and are expected to wreak havoc this winter along the California coast. What has happened here suggests that fears caused by a natural disaster may linger for years after the event.
"There are people in Kauai who needed counseling but never received it," said LaVonne Pieronti, executive director of the YWCA in Lihue, where the roof of the building was stripped off by the hurricane. "When the typhoon hit Guam this week, some of these people cried in remembrance."
In the aftermath of Iniki, relief workers streaming into the island from Honolulu and the mainland were impressed by the cooperative spirit and seeming stoicism of residents who had lost homes, cars, possessions and jobs. All of Kauai's 50,000 residents suffered losses, and one-third were homeless. Property damage totaled $1.8 billion -- roughly twice the losses incurred over a larger area in the Los Angeles riots earlier the same year.
Rain and isolation hampered relief efforts. Power lines and telephone poles had been splintered, and replacements were ferried in by barge from Honolulu, 95 miles away. Soon, the entire state ran out of poles, which were then flown in from the Northwest.
But Kauai was the indirect beneficiary of another disaster. Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida and the Gulf Coast a month before Iniki, and officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were stung by criticisms that they had responded too slowly. FEMA and other federal agencies moved quickly after Iniki, and the state helped by assuming the claims of an insurance company that went bankrupt from $300 million in Iniki losses.
Since most homeowners on Kauai had hurricane insurance, payments from the policies triggered a construction boom that lasted for nearly two years and encouraged optimistic forecasts of hotel rebuilding.
The manager of the ravaged Westin Kauai in Lihue told a Washington Post reporter in January 1993 that it would reopen by mid-year. Instead, this once-lavish resort was sold for a fraction of its original cost to another hotel chain that opened on a smaller scale years later.
In the Poipu area, popular for its sandy beaches and sunshine, the Waiohai and the Poipu Beach Resort remain closed despite pleas for reconstruction by the governor and Kauai's mayor to the Hong Kong owners. The Coco Palms, the island's oldest resort hotel, remains closed because of an insurance dispute.
Reconstruction of the Sheraton Kauai at a cost of $40 million was hailed by Margy Parker, director of the Poipu Beach Resort Association, as providing a second "anchor" for Poipu, which again has resorts at both ends of its long, white beach. The other anchor is the Hyatt Regency Kauai, which nightly shows a video of Iniki.
The Hyatt was less damaged than other resorts because recent changes in zoning laws that its owners had opposed required the hotel to be built back from the beach. This spared the Hyatt the full force of the ocean storm surge, and the hotel reopened soon after the hurricane.
Many homeowners have fared worse. According to the Kauai Data Book, a resident on the island's luxurious north shore bought an exclusive beachfront property on which he built a seven-bedroom, eight-bath residence with teak and marble interior for $8.45 million. He sold it four years after Iniki for $3.5 million.
Owners of modest homes and condominiums on the south and west of the island have often been unable to sell at any price. Kauai's unemployment rate, traditionally the lowest in Hawaii, has been the highest of any island since Iniki.
"There was an optimism bordering on euphoria during the construction boom," said Jan TenBruggencate, the Honolulu Advertiser's veteran Kauai correspondent. "But that vanished when people couldn't sell their homes or find new jobs."
As a result of the job shortage, there has been an migration from Kauai, where the resident population is generally believed to be considerably lower than the official 1996 census estimate of 56,000.
A handyman who asked that he not be identified said his brother and father had worked at major Kauai resorts before Iniki but had now moved to other islands to find work. The handyman said he does odd jobs for low wages at a Poipu condominium, earning just enough to "buy food and the gas to drive to work."
Tourism, the major source of Kauai's income, has crept slowly upward since 1994, but Parker and Tani Bova, communications director at the Sheraton, said travel agents have been slow to recommend the island. An estimated 900,000 tourists will visit Kauai this year, 300,000 less than the year before Iniki.
Nearly every business in Kauai has trimmed its work force in the past two years. One of Kauai's three sugar plantations closed in 1996. Government is the largest employer on the island, led by the County of Kauai and the Pacific Missile Range at Barking Sands.
But Iniki may have given Kauai a subtle advantage over the "paved-over paradise" and crowded beaches of Honolulu and Maui. In comparison, Kauai is an older, less-settled Hawaii that resembles the "enchanted island" of Bali Hai in "South Pacific," which was filmed in part on Kauai's north shore.
Even in this time of troubles, the island's boosters are quick to remind visitors that Bali Hai is really Kauai.