Maui’s Waters of Destruction

The Wailuku River (once known as Iao Stream) lived up to its name the other night when it became a “water of destruction.” The storm that wrought such destruction on other parts of the island resulted in what I’ve been wishing for in my new, dry Kihei location: a quiet rainy day. It wasn’t so peaceful elsewhere on Maui. I followed storm damage reports online, thankful that people were filming and sharing videos of damage to various beloved spots on the rest of the island. And, on my quiet rainy day, I came up with these rather random thoughts about weather, water and history.

The river has done worse damage in the past. A severe storm hit Maui in January 1916, dumping 30 inches of rain in three days on the tablelands around it. Flooding killed at least 12 people, demolished 34 homes in the Iao area, and wiped out the wooden Market Street bridge between Happy Valley and the rest of town. That was probably the worst of a number of floods by the rambling river. (BTW, I wonder if we could call the latest downpour a 100-year storm?)

Such destructive rains and the ever-changing banks of the river led to the concrete hardening of the riverbed through the Happy Valley area. Some years ago there was a move to harden lower portions of the stream, running through the Wailuku industrial area to the sea. Already, stream activity had begun to cut into the banks along the industrial area, where many buildings stand. The planners were looking at alternatives, and while I could see the need to do something about a river running through an urban area, I certainly hoped they would find a better solution than the concrete encasement upstream.

I don’t know whatever happened to that effort; I’ve never heard about it since. The last I looked, the riverbed had not been hardened. But in the rains the other night, the river did tear into banks in the industrial area, leaving garbage trucks with their rear wheels on the edge of a new cliff. There must be a way to stabilize a riverbed while still allowing it to maintain a natural ecosystem, protect the ocean from runoff and recharge the aquifer as the river flows. I hope we find it.

That, of course, is not all the damage  water has done lately to Maui. The river  took  giant chunk from Kepaniwai Park Tuesday night, and  in the past few days, the ocean tore out still more of Paia’s Baldwin Park (increasing erosion that’s been going on for some time).  Such major damage will require rethinking before rebuilding. Both parks’ pavilions are in harm’s way, yet both are historic and beloved. Kepaniwai was dedicated in 1952, with its “international garden” honoring Maui’s various ethnic groups established in 1966. Heritage Gardens’ ethnic pavilions looked reasonably okay in the videos, but the river has incorporated some of the parking lot and strewn a lot of trash about.

As for Baldwin, also featured in online photos and videos, waves have wiped out sand as far up as the pavilion’s foundation, sending the outdoor showers to sea. Baldwin Park Pavilion was built in the mid-1960s by the plantation’s Supervisors Club, whose volunteer labor provided a seaside venue for many parties over many decades.  What do we do now with these buildings in two parks so close to the destructive power of water?

And finally, I dread to see what the West Maui Mountains look like along the Pali, where a fire just a few months ago destroyed vegetation and left soil vulnerable to a hard rain’s pounding. Sure enough, debris blocked the road Tuesday night, which was an inconvenience and potentially dangerous. But the long-lasting tragedy could turn out to be the washing away of the mountainsides’ precious topsoil and any seeds or roots that might have survived the fire.

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