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Huliheʻe Palace planning for rising sea level after big waves crash wedding party

Huliheʻe Palace on King Kamehameha Day in Kailua-Kona on June 11, 2022.
Daughters of Hawaiʻi
Huliheʻe Palace on King Kamehameha Day in Kailua-Kona on June 11, 2022.

Last weekend’s south shore swells delighted surfers around the islands, but they were a complicating factor for many with oceanside properties. A managed retreat from the shoreline may be the only long-term solution as the ocean encroaches on Hawaiʻi's coastlines.

But where does that leave historical sites like Hulihe’e Palace in Kailua-Kona on Hawaiʻi Island? Built in 1838, it was directly in the path of the looming waves.

A viral video shows a wall of water wreaking havoc on a wedding party at the palace.

"I think there's two really big wins here and one is that no one was hurt — thank goodness. Two is that there was minimal damage to the palace, if any really," said Manu Powers, regent and president of the Daughters of Hawaiʻi — which oversees the management of the 19th-century site.

Powers told HPR that events like the one over the weekend are a reminder of the fragility of their seawall — which is in need of repair — along with other vulnerabilities.

“We are desperately in need of the renovation project that is going to be forthcoming with the county and state shortly. And so when an event like this happens, we get further in the red — we’re now pushed further behind," Powers said.

"The palace is almost 200 years old. It’s not surprising, but it’s in constant need of maintenance, upkeep. And the restoration project that’s coming up is going to be really really key in its survival," Powers told HPR.

She says about $400,000 has been earmarked in the state budget to repair and shore up the seawall. The palace is state-owned and administered by the Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of State Parks, but managed by the Daughters of Hawaiʻi.

Powers says the palace escaped major damage from the high swells but it was a “close call,” adding that such events will be “an ongoing problem.”

"When I was able to finally get our executive director on the phone, I was really relieved to hear that we actually came out just as good as we would during a typical swell, really. And so it was a huge relief," she said. "No water in the basement — and that is an occurrence that happens more regularly than we would like, with large swells or large water events."

Powers is also the co-owner of Sea Quest Hawaii, a snorkeling tour company. The Conversation last spoke to her in January after tsunami surges from the Tonga eruption swamped her company’s office.

This interview aired on The Conversation on July 19, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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