The Maui News
Sunday, October 5, 2008
By CHRIS HAMILTON, Staff Writer
KIPAHULU - After almost two years of uncertainty, delays, frustration and waiting, Maui's highways once again are all open.
Motorists can update their maps. The county's barricade at Lelekea Bay on Piilani Highway is gone. The isolated rural communities of Kaupo, Kipahulu and Hana are reconnected by road, nearly two years after a pair of earthquakes jarred the islands on Oct. 15, 2006.
The boulders are cleared. The unstable cliff faces are braced with steel netting. Road bases are repaired and reinforced with concrete. Maui County reopened more than 10 miles of East Maui road Saturday.
Janod Contractors Inc. unexpectedly completed the last phase of the $10.8 million project about a month ahead of schedule, said Maui County spokeswoman Mahina Martin.
"This has been a priority for Mayor Charmaine Tavares," Martin said. "We knew we were getting very excited. We were monitoring it every day and ended up being very surprised."
About 75 people attended a ceremony under a tent set up in the center of the Alelele Bridge. Tears welled in the eyes of several neighbors who gathered for blessings, speeches and a traditional meal.
"Take the tent down," joked musician Kaleo Kaina. "I'll drive over first."
It also rained Saturday morning, and Martin commented that to Native Hawaiians, the heavy drops were a good sign.
Many of the audience lived in either Kipahulu or Kaupo. The villages of extended families and farmers all suffered from the loss of a direct connection for commerce and community connectivity. The closure cost some people hours of additional drive time.
Even Hana residents often prefer the "backside" Piilani Highway as a much quicker route to and from Hana to Upcountry and Central Maui.
When the pair of earthquakes measuring magnitude 6.7 and 6.0 struck, they jarred a cascade of rocks over the highway cut into the seacliffs between Kipahulu and Kaupo, cut utility lines and undermined sections of the narrow roadway. Initially, the most serious problem was the historic Paihi Bridge between Kipahulu and Hana.
Engineers examining the bridge for the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined it was no longer safe and Kipahulu was cut off from Hana until a temporary steel bridge was brought in.
But geologists and engineers examining the cliffs overhanging the Piilani Highway determined there remained severe rockfall threats and then-Mayor Alan Arakawa ordered the road between Kipahulu and Kaupo shut down in December 2006.
Kaupo residents who had jobs in Hana were forced to relocate. Kaupo students had to relocate as well or walk the closed roadway to catch a ride from Kipahulu.
The closure cut off tourist traffic through Kipahulu as well, sharply cutting sales at the Kaupo Store and affecting sales at the Tedeschi Winery in Ulupalakua.
The highway - much of it still unpaved or strips of asphalt as patched as a third-hand surfboard - was popular with tourists making the around-Haleakala circuit to visit the Oheo Pools section of Haleakala National Park and the Charles Lindbergh burial site at Palapala Ho'omau Church.
On Saturday, Tavares and state Sen. J. Kalani English, whose district includes East Maui, focused on how the long-awaited completion of the project will allow family, friends and neighbors to safely talk story in person once again.
"This really is a pleasure," said a beaming Tavares. "You all were suffering from it every day as it ran into so many obstacles along the way. You guys were so frustrated and there was nothing you could do about it."
Maui County government was often a target of criticism over the slow going and what some saw as a lack of regular updates or accurate information.
But county officials said they were hampered by complicated logistics, waiting for engineering and geological studies as well as dealing with aesthetic and archaeological sensitivity issues. There was also a need to develop an additional source of outside funding.
Martin said that teams of contractors and county workers consulted with local kupuna and community groups to make sure that the metallic webbing needed to keep loose rocks from tumbling onto the roadway wasn't too displeasing to the eye or culturally, Martin said. The same type of steel netting was installed along the pali of Honoapiilani Highway as a result of earthquake damage found on the slopes.
Timmy Chinn of the Kaupo Community Association was among those who thanked Stan Zitnik of Tavares' office for keeping people updated and finding answers for them.
English said that local elected officials had to persuade the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide financial support to reopen the road. He said that FEMA officials initially told him not to bother.
FEMA is now expected to reimburse the county for $3 million, English said. It is thanks to Tavares' vigilance, he said.
Two months after the earthquake, it was FEMA that declared unsafe six sections of Maui highways, including stretches at Manawainui, Kalepa and Alelele. Actual construction on the East Maui sections didn't begin until July last year.
"This is quite literally a path to home," English said. "It is more than a road, it's our lifeline."
Linda Domen, owner of the Kaupo Store, was forced to shutter her shop and find another job in order to survive the road closure. She said she plans to reopen her store, hopefully, this week.
"It was slow progress, and with so many setbacks, I gave up on waiting," Domen said. "It's all in the past now, though. Thank God."
Lisa Hamilton of the Kipahulu Community Association called the finished roadway glorious. Hamilton's husband, Roger, is an electrician who would park and walk across the roadway with his tools each day to get to work sites.
A few neighbors, though, called the reopening bittersweet. They said they will miss the quiet of a closed road blocking the trains of rental cars and vans.
"Personally, I have mixed feelings," Chinn said. "It's been so peaceful. But that's the price we pay."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.
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