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Hawaii Flooding Prompts Emergency Declaration, Evacuations And Fears Of Dam Failure

A road is flooded near the breached Kaupakalua Dam in the Haiku area of the Hawaiian island of Maui on Monday.
Maggie T. Sutrov via Reuters
A road is flooded near the breached Kaupakalua Dam in the Haiku area of the Hawaiian island of Maui on Monday.

The governor of Hawaii declared a state of emergency after severe flooding across the state's islands prompted evacuations, damaged homes and raised alarm over a possible dam failure.

Gov. David Ige signed the proclamation on Tuesday to release state general funds to help those impacted by the extreme weather, which he said is expected to continue until Friday. The order covers the counties of Hawaii, Maui, Kalawao and Kauai, as well as the city and county of Honolulu.

Residents of the town of Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu were ordered on Tuesday afternoon to evacuate because of "catastrophic flooding." Officials lifted the evacuation order some seven hours later but said road closures remained in place.

Officials in Maui, which was hit especially hard by the heavy rainfall, are still assessing the extent of the damage. They said intense rainfall damaged bridges, resulted in the overtopping of the century-old Kaupakalua Dam, rendered several roads impassable and damaged or destroyed at least some half-dozen homes.

"When you see flood damage in the light of day, it's a reminder of the sheer power of fast-moving water," Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino said in a county news release. "We are so fortunate there were no reported deaths or injuries."

Victorino said at a Monday news briefing that this is "a real flooding situation we have not seen in a long time," adding that some residents had told him this was the worst flooding they had seen in 25 years.

Parts of Maui had been hit with between 3 and 19 inches of rain as of noon local time on Tuesday, according to preliminary rainfall totals from the National Weather Service. Ensuing flash flooding trapped some residents in their homes and forced those in the vicinity of the overflowing Kaupakalua Dam to evacuate.

Maui County on Monday ordered everyone downstream of the Kaupakalua Dam in the northern town of Haiku to leave the area, saying heavy rains had led to the dam cresting.

The dam was reported breached at about 3:21 p.m. local time on Monday, according to officials. However, they announced the following day that "after closer inspection," they had determined there was in fact "no structural damage."

The Kaupakalua Dam — one of theoldest agricultural dams on the island of Maui — is 57 feet high and 400 feet long and can hold 68 million gallons of water. It is owned by the East Maui Irrigation Co. and Mahi Pono Holdings Inc.

Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement that the dam has been the focus of regulators and was already scheduled for removal this summer because of structural deficiencies. Regulators had ordered the owners to keep the dam's reservoir empty during normal operations, noting they have done so except in the case of storms, when water is passed through quickly.

East Maui Irrigation Co. officials monitored the Kaupakalua Reservoir overnight on Monday, according to an update from Maui County. They said that water levels remained above normal but approximately 3 feet below the top of the dam.

Shan Tsutsui, chief operating officer of Mahi Pono, reiterated in a statement reported Tuesday by Maui Now that the dam had not failed.

"Out of concerns for the safety of the surrounding community, the highway was closed and residents were ordered to evacuate upon our recommendation," he said. "At this time, the over-topping of the dam has ceased. However, our crews are actively monitoring the situation and will continue monitoring the water levels until it returns to a safe level."

County officials have asked evacuees to stay away from the area until there is an "all clear" announcement.

Maui's fire department responded to more than a dozen calls for help from residents trapped by rising waters, officials said on Monday.

Officials said that one bridge in the area was "washed out" and another "displaced." They added that several portions of roads had been washed away, flooded or blocked by debris.

The flood advisory in Maui County expired early Wednesday morning local time, though a flash flood watch remains in effect through the evening.

Flash flood watches are also in place for Kauai County and the city and county of Honolulu through Wednesday evening local time, according to the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service said heavy rainfall shifted to Oahu on Tuesday, closing multiple roads and reportedly damaging several homes in the rural community of Hauula.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi urged residents on Tuesday to heed evacuation orders.

"The storm at this point in time is most serious. It is life threatening," he said. "If you've been asked to ... evacuate, please do so immediately."

Hawaii News Now reported that two individuals in Honolulu were swept away by raging waters in separate incidents. A 27-year-old man had been displaced about 100 yards and was rescued from the top of his truck, while the search for the other individual was unsuccessful and was slated to resume early local time on Wednesday.

Honolulu officials also said Tuesday that some 8,200 gallons of partially treated wastewater had spilled within the grounds of a local wastewater treatment plant and partly on the grounds of the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge. They said Honolulu's Department of Environmental Services responded to the sewer overflow, which lasted over two hours, and would determine warning signs and water sampling on Wednesday morning.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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