Hurricane Iniki: 20 Years Later

It’s been two decades since Sept. 11, 1992, that cataclysmic day when Hurricane Iniki devastated Kauai with widespread flooding, storm surge and 145 mph winds. With the anniversary upon us, we did a quick survey to see where Hawaii stands, hurricanewise, today.

The Coco Palms Resort today: still a casualty of the storm.

photo: kicka witte

Improved Forecasts

In 1992, the only satellite capturing images of Iniki sat in geosynchronous orbit roughly above Texas. It was so far east, and at such an oblique angle to Hawaii, that its imagery was of limited use to National Weather Service meteorologists tracking the storm. Today, the weather service has a satellite stationed above the eastern Pacific, offering a more direct view of the Islands. Its images have four times the resolution of the Iniki-era satellite’s, and it has a microwave camera that allows scientists to peer right into the structure of the eyewall. In addition, meteorologists today have more sophisticated computer hurricane models, as well as a Doppler radar system that can track nearby weather (up to 200 miles from Hawaii) on a minute-by-minute basis. This all adds up to better forecasts. Hurricane warnings are now issued 36 hours in advance, compared to 24 hours in ’92, and the weather service can take a stab at predicting where a hurricane will be five days out, rather than three.

The Chicken Boom

Wild chickens had a foothold on Kauai before Iniki, but their numbers exploded afterward. According to local lore, the population grew with the addition of hundreds of fighting cocks that got free during the storm. With no mongooses on Kauai to eat their eggs, chickens are now everywhere. The upside: They eat centipedes. The downside: Roosters all over the island crowing at dawn.

Beefed Up Building Codes

After the storm, which destroyed 1,400 homes and damaged thousands more, Kauai County quickly adopted a tougher building code. Other counties gradually followed suit. Among the changes seen statewide: wood-framed walls must be attached not only to the roof with pieces of hardware called hurricane ties, but also to the foundation. More recently, the state adopted a model building code that includes stricter standards for hurricane-resistant construction. All counties are required to adopt the code, but they are free to amend it. And amend it they have. Hawaii County, for instance, amended away the standards for protecting windows from wind-borne debris. Honolulu County is still working on its version.

Generation Iniki

Thirty-five babies (28 girls, seven boys) born in the United States in 1992 were named Iniki, the first time that name appeared on the Social Security Administration’s baby names list. Among them, Iniki Thor Schwalger-Faamausili, who was born on Kauai during the storm. Says Faamausili, now living in Colorado, “I do believe that the hurricane plays a big part in my personality and in some things that occured in my life.”

Depleted Hurricane Fund

The insurance industry, reeling from the $3 billion in damage Iniki wrought, simply stopped writing and renewing hurricane insurance policies in Hawaii. To protect property owners and keep real estate transactions from grinding to a halt, the state created the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund, government-run hurricane insurance. In 2002, after private insurers had returned to the market, the program was suspended. Legislators and governors have salivated over the frozen hurricane relief coffers ever since. Gov. Ben Cayetano wanted to gut the fund entirely, but only managed to ding it. Gov. Linda Lingle pledged not to touch it, but dipped into it anyway. Gov. Neil Abercrombie came into office promising to raid it, and has been good to his word. The fund’s peak holdings: $222 million. Its current balance: $20 million.

Elvis’ Bungalow Still Wrecked

The Coco Palms Resort, Kauai’s once glorious faux-Polynesian fantasy hotel, was not repaired after the storm and now lies in utter decay. Delayed insurance claims, economic downturns, leery developers, anti-development sentiments and ghosts are among the reasons cited for Coco Palms’ sad state. A $20 tour of the ruins (free on Fridays for kamaaina) includes a visit to the cottage where Elvis Presley stayed while shooting the 1961 film Blue Hawaii. It’s a shambles. Call (808) 346-2048.