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Oʻahu shorelines altered by sea walls and sand removal

"Lanikai House. From Waimanalo side; Trent Trust Company." Undated.
Hawaiʻi State Archives
"Lanikai House. From Waimanalo side; Trent Trust Company." Undated.

Sea level rise is a global concern that also hits home here in Hawaiʻi. But it's not just a story about the ocean, it's also about sand — and sea walls.

With our partners at the UH Mānoa Center for Oral History, we're sharing some perspectives on the issue. Our guide is ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan.

Lucy Gay is a Native Hawaiian activist and director of the Leeward Community College at Waiʻanae Moku satellite school. She grew up in Waiʻanae in the '60s where her family camped on the beaches of Mākua and Māʻili. She recalls the sand dunes all along the Waiʻanae coast that were leveled to make the concrete that built the hotels in Waikīkī.

GAY: Māʻili Beach Park is about a mile long, and I remember driving Farrington Highway and I could never see the ocean from the highway because the sand dunes just paralleled the highway, it was so high. Today they are gone, there are no sand dunes there, they're all gone. I think all the sand went to Waikīkī and they mixed it with the concrete to make the hotels. I’ve seen photos, old photos, of Kahe Point coming up tracks just before Black Rock. They're photos of the sand dunes and sand going across where we now have Farrington Highway and where Hawaiian Electric has their open land where they plan, one day, to put a solar farm. That was all sand! So, that's all gone. There's another photo I saw of the ORNL train making its way around the Mākua cave and on the ocean side, you see the sand dunes were higher than the train. They're all gone too. The Ohikilolo crab was a land crab that used to make its way to the ocean and it always did that until we put the paved road in, and the crabs couldn't make it across the road and it interrupted the natural migration of a land crab for which an ahupuaʻa is named.

Native Hawaiian Walt Mahealani Keale was raised in California and Oregon, but his motherʻs family, who are noted musicians, have roots on Niʻihau — his Uncle Moe Keale and cousins Skippy and Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoʻole. He lives in Kailua, Oʻahu, and works as a cultural resource ambassador with the Department of Land and Natural Resources at Kaʻena Point.

KEALE: Twenty years ago, Kailua actually had a beach, and now they don't. The sand is gone. Everyone I know would say that one of the biggest kind of adverse impacting items to the Kailua Bay situation has been the walls that are built in Lanikai, sea walls. That those have kept sand from migrating back in the same pattern. So, you know, the sand moves throughout the seasons and you see it like at Kaʻena, you see where there's a lot of beach by summer. By the end of winter, not a lot of beach, a lot of rock exposed. And you think, 'Oh, shoot, what happened? It's gone.' Well, just come back in October, it'll be back. And sure enough, it's there. So, 20 years, I would say the only thing I really notice is a lot of the beach is gone. Used to be much higher with sand and wider out to the actual break. Now you have like the ocean is like up against where the tree line was. Yeah. Or still is, the ironwood trees. And so now you have like a lot of exposed roots. You have trees falling down where before there was plenty of sand for those trees. So that has nothing to do with sea level rise. That has to do with Lanikai rise, you know, development rise.

This oral history project is supported by the SHARP initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.

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