Council Votes 7-2 In Favor of $5M Reimbursement After ʻĪao Flood
After two hours of emotional testimony focused on spending transparency and government response to last month’s severe flooding event at ʻĪao and Kahoma Valleys, the Maui County Council voted 7-2 on Tuesday to approve $5 million in reimbursement funds, to pay for emergency work conducted so far.
The two dissenting votes came from Councilmembers Elle Cochran and Don Guzman who said their “no” votes were not to take away from the work that was done by employees who acted diligently, but to give the minority a voice who expressed concern over cultural sensitivity and lack of coordination between state, county and private projects along the Wailuku River.
“We need to understand what each other is doing,” said Cochran, noting that what takes place in one part of the river, could effect others downstream.
Cochran said those who testified made “great points” about the removal of pōhaku (boulders/rocks). “God knows was was in the soil and iwi that could be gone forever,” said Cochran after the council learned that some of the material, including smaller rocks measuring six inches across went into a crusher.
Michael Ratte Division Chief, for the Department of Environmental Management’s Solid Waste branch said the amount of small rocks that got crushed was probably about 5% of the total material that was received.
He said 2,380 tons of mixed material, 6,900 tons of earthen material, and 12 tons of mixed green waste was received at a storage site near the Central Maui Landfill over three days between Sept. 28 and 30, 2016. Additional material was also dropped off on October 4, 2016.
While Ratte focused on four days when work was documented, Stewart Stant, Director of Environmental Management for the county said trucks were going to the landfill as early as the day after the event, on September 14, and said questions regarding those first loads could be better answered by officials with the Parks Department.
Stant apologized for the lack of communication with the community and said a better job could have been done in getting the information out to the public, but said that no boulders were crushed out of the 500-plus truckloads that were received at the landfill.
“Boulders were removed and separated. Dirt and smaller rocks were processed and became gravel. The boulders are still at our site. We haven’t crushed them,” said Stant, noting that the temporary site near the Central Maui Landfill has since been closed until further notice.
David Goode, Director Public Works said the initial cleanup included a mix of all kinds of mud and debris, but as the days progressed, the content of those loads became more consistent. Goode said boulders that could not be used on site due to space were taken offsite for storage, with the majority taken to a 209 acre site along the Kūihelani Highway.
When asked about the temporary site near the landfill, Ratte said the main focus was to accept what came in, and to use the site as efficiently as possible. When probed about procedures and directives, he said he did not receive a directive as to what to do with the crushed material, but said using it as cover material at the landfill was a “definite possibility that had been discussed.”
The potential use of ʻĪao material for county benefit drew criticism during testimony, as did the removal of boulders from the stream.
Councilmemer Riki Hokama said he has made a request to receive copies of contracts executed so that the public can review the documents and the council can respond to community concerns. He expressed concern that millions of dollars was being spent, and said he did not want it to be “washed down in the next rainstorm.”
Hokama said it was his understanding that boulders were to be placed at a temporary site, and brought back for appropriate use in the ahupuaʻa. “Not once did I hear about crushing,” he said as he questioned directors with the department of Public Works, Environmental Management, and Solid Waste divisions.
Several testifiers expressed concern over the removal of boulders from the stream saying the pōhaku serve to curb the energy of running water and could be used to protect infrastructure in other areas of the river, including property downstream that faces threats of further erosion with additional rain.
Kapono Makahanaloa Antunez called ʻĪao Valley a place of healing. “It’s a place of prayer. It’s a place of life. It’s a place for us to meditate and connect to source. There’s a lot of energy in the pōhaku up there,” he said.
Fellow testifier, Kawika Mattos said removal of the pōhaku could be catastrophic saying, “There’s no brunt force that’s going to take away from the amount of energy from those rivers coming down and again. You create flumes like a pressure washer, and the next storm–mind you, we’re going into our rainy season now, this is when we get the most rain… you packed it in a way where you tighten up the river, it’s going to be more disastrous for the community members that live at the bottom.”
Ellie Rae Marshman Castillo, a 7 year resident of Maui, said she is a certified geologist who worked with the Department of Land and Natural Resources in Minnesota for four years. In her capacity, she said she taught and educated the public on karst and cave geology and the processes that occur with flooding.
Being from the Whitewater River Valley Watershed, a tributary of the Mississipi River, Castillo said, flooding would occur on an 8-12 year cycle, resulting in major flooding and evacuations. “One of the first things that was done back home is we definitely were not taking rocks out of the river. We were actually bringing rocks to the river.”
“It really broke my heart to see what’s happening at Kepaniwai, especially at the bridge area,” said Castillo, expressing concern over what could happen with more rain. “On the back side, the actual debris that should have been removed instead of rocks, is still sitting there. So you would have major dams coming up on the back side of the bridge, which would cause water to flood up. You would now have water going over the road or jumping the road on that side. And down farther from the bridge, there is still a huge island of debris. That is now going to affect everybody downstream,” she said.
Hokama said he believes some of the questions presented by the community, “although not in the county’s jurisdiction, is important,” and said it is the council’s part to assist in getting appropriate responses for the public. Among the concerns was work done at a Wailuku Water Company diversion above Kepaniwai Park. Construction there raised questions concerning oversight and the realignment of the river, with a demonstration resulting in a work stoppage at the site.
Testifier Jennifer Noelani Ahia said the Army Corps of Engineers “moved in so fast, and there was no oversight, no communication… I just want to make it clear that I don’t support my tax dollars going to what’s going on up there. It’s hewa. It’s hewa loa. That water is sacred. This is the same situation that is going on all over the world with corporations having more control than people and corporate interest being used to take advantage of people and their resources.”
Councilmember Michael Victorino said the council is working to better understand the decision making and why the public was not informed, which he said resulted in a lot of misinformation. He said a system should be in place for emergencies “to avoid this kind of mistrust in the future.”
Victorino also advocated for the closure of ʻĪao Valley Road, limiting it to residential traffic and work crews saying, visitors were traversing the river without knowing the danger.
Councilmember Don Couch echoed the sentiments of his colleagues who voted in favor of the funding reimbursement, saying he wants a representative from the state Commission on Water Resource Management and the Army Corps of Engineers to be available for information relating to river work.
Councilmember Stacy Crivello expressed appreciation for the testifiers that spoke about the restoration and spiritually of the area. She agreed with Couch that an explanation was in order from the Army Corps and and CWRM representatives to explain what work they permitted for Wailuku Water Company. She also said an explanation is needed pertaining to comments shared from testifiers relating to boulders removal and expenses incurred.
“I hope we can at least respond to residents of the ahupuaʻa, and continue to understand the sacredness, and make sure they’re from that area,” said Crivello. She said her vote to support the funding will allow the county to meet legal requirements.
“Maybe we could have done things more coordinated, but when people’s lives are on the line, we do what we have to do,” said Councilmember Gladys Baisa. Instead of focusing on negative comments about what transpired, Baisa said hopefully, a lesson was learned and better procedures will be iin place for the future. She said that when visiting the site she, “Sat there and cried, and prayed and listened to the wonderful comments,” made about the Fire Chief and others who risked their lives to save others.
Councilmember Don Guzman said he was sad and disappointed that there was a lack of coordination between the county, Wailuku Water Company and private landowners. He said it would have helped to have an emergency coordinator designated for updates and communication. “I’m not going to support this, as just a sign that we can do better and will do better,” said Guzman.
He said to vote unanimously would be to say that the situation was “picture perfect,” but he said it’s not.
Councilmember Hokama concluded saying, “Difficult situations bring out intense emotions from our community. This is a great example. I’m happy to know the greater community responded” in the manner in which they did. “I would say, now is the time for us to become one, not find fine cracks to split us up… I still think we need to support this for the greater good and act as one family in response to the situation.”
Council Chair Mike White said he respected everybody’s ability to vote “as they see fit.”
The consideration came following a severe flooding event at ʻĪao in September that resulted in millions of dollars in damage to public facilities and private property along the Wailuku River.
As a result of the flooding event, the County of Maui has undertaken restoration and cleanup efforts that has resulted in an expenditure of funds, pursuant to an emergency proclamation, that was not anticipated for the FY 2017 budget.
The request states that in order for the County to continue remediation efforts, an amendment is needed to the FY 2017 budget. The bill specifically sets aside $5 million in County funds for the ongoing work.
County officials say that without immediate additional funding to undertake further restorative efforts, an imminent peril to the public health, safety, or welfare exists and will continue to exist until restoration and cleanup efforts are completed.
There was an Emergency Proclamation issued by Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, and a Presidential Disaster Declaration was approved for federal assistance last week, with authorities referring to the event as a 100-year-flood.