On a dark mid-November day in 1982, the boisterous, heavy-breathing Hurricane Iwa* swept in and wreaked havoc upon the island of Kauai, in Hawaii. (*pronounced EE-vah)
I was a studio potter and stone caver. My kids and I lived in one of the plantation houses in the tiny, sugar-plantation town of Kekaha, way out on the remote edges of the west side of the island.
When word was announced that the hurricane was upon us, I was at a conference being held in a hotel in Hanalei, all the way around on the other side of the island from where my house was. We all needed to evacuate the hotel.
As I hurriedly gathered my things, I watched from our first floor conference room as hotel folks started throwing the plastic lounge chairs into the swimming pool, carried potted plants and heavy tables inside, and pushed recalcitrant, unbelieving guests (a hurricane? we thought this was paradise! we’re staying put – this can’t be all that bad…) in to safety.
I dashed out to my car, remembering from hurricanes I went through as a kid what it was going to be like in the next few hours as the storm built quickly in intensity.
I drove though powerful bursts of gusting wind that rocked my car, a heavy Volvo station wagon. Huge sporadic dumps of rain pounced from the sky, as if a giant was pouring bucketsful down from the black swirling clouds above.
Halfway across the island, outside the main town of Lihue, I encountered the first road block being set up. I gunned it and ran it. I’d be damned if I was going to sit out the worst of the storm sitting in my car miles away from my 7 and 9 year-old kids.
The winds were picking up. The destruction was beginning in earnest. Pieces of roofing, grass clippings, leaves and small detritus were beginning to smash into my windshield.
I loved it! Storms invigorated me, each flash of light coming through the gyrating clouds made me feel on edge and keenly alive. I sat bolt upright as I drove, my hands and arms thrilling with fighting the energy of wind vs car.
I ran through two more road blocks – carefully, now that they were set up – simply not stopping as cops approached me on foot, trying to wave me down. I just shook my head and avoided eye contact, refusing to roll down my window to talk to them, inching my way slowly forward. And at the last one, pushing over the barricade with the front of my car, and driving around it.
Now the road was unoccupied. I came rocketing around a hard turn, and headed down into a valley rimmed with rows of spindly, tall, fragile gum trees, their splintered limbs falling haphazardly to the ground.
Suddenly, around another curve, I almost plowed into the rear end of a line of cars stopped abruptly in their own flights. A tree lay downed right across the road at the bottom of the valley.
A road crew was already cutting the tree up to haul it off the road. I tried to breathe and calm myself down so I could sit and watch the goings-on, instead of uselessly, nervously fidgeting, worrying and fretting.
Just as I got my breath under control, one of those trees came crashing down across the road right behind me, missing my rear bumper by a hair. Instant near-heart attack!
Down the hill from me, a sudden spurt of gale-force wind picked up a VW bug from underneath and made it prance and spin into the air and jump high over the guard rails on the right, landing upside down in the gully like a helpless turtle, its driver crawling out from under it shocked but unharmed.
I watched as three more trees flew up and crashed down ahead of me, thankfully falling on the side of the road, not on it.
Finally, the crew got the way clear and we could proceed.
I ran out of gas right outside of Koloa town, only a few miles but a seeming eternity away from my boys.
By some sort of grace, I ended up leaving my car on the side of the road down the hill from my friend Kalani’s house. He saw me from his deck! I waved, and he walked down to get me. We spent almost the whole night taping and boarding windows and prepping containers of water, food and supplies for the coming days.
A storm like this one has long arms of impact. The island would be wrecked. Everything would run out in very short order, roads would be blocked, no one would be able to get to work – for most in the tourist trade, there would BE no work. Food and gas would run out, phone lines down…
I finally got home the next afternoon. Grace was certainly on my side, because Tim, another friend, had picked up my two boys and taken them up the hill to his own sturdy house, making sure they were safe as the storm raged.
We had no cell phones then, remember, so I didn’t know if they were safe or not – heart in throat choking with worry until I got home.
We reunited with relieved cries and hugs.
Innocent as can be, young kids – they reported having the time of their lives as wind bowed in the big heavy glass doors to the deck outside. Tim had kept them open a bit to avert an explosive vacuum.
In high excited voices, they told me how they saw trees and bushes spring out of the ground and fly left, right and everywhere below them on the hill; roofs and swing sets and small boats and sheds and their stored outrigger canoes and paddles taking flight, seemingly light as feathers on a balmy day.
We spent the evening regaling each other with our storm stories. We had a gas stove, so we could cook and use up spoilable food. The evening stretched into the night.
The dark that night was filled with silence as we huddled together like fox kits in a safe den, waiting for the rest of the storm to abate.
Later, I crashed into a long sleep, no more energy to be had after my 2-day trek home.
I awoke to an empty house. The sun that morning was briefly brilliant, resplendent, the air so clear it felt like you could ring it like a pristine bell.
The kids had grown impatient waiting for me to wake up, so they were off to inspect the damage around town. Later, we walked around together – there’d be no cars driving on this mess – not even a bike could get through.
We saw houses picked up and plopped down yards away from their foundations. Two-by-fours with sharp pointed ends torn from walls, piercing other walls like javelins flung by gaming giants. Plantation houses were made with single-wall construction, so piercing the walls with jetting debris was easy.
The beach sand, usually lying complacently on the ocean side of the huge boulders protecting and shoring up the coastal road, now completely smothered those same boulders, and crawled up and into the beach-front yards of the closest houses.
Then reality sank in.
We had no phone, no electricity.
We were stuck.
Tourists were not allowed to come onto the island.
Neighborhood folks pooled their fridge and freezer contents at the local family-owned restaurant-bar, which had a gas-powered generator. We gathered there for meals from then on into the next few weeks. New supplies trickled in, stocks sporadically replenished.
A long month later, when the roads were finally clear and we could get gas, the word went out that the hotels down in Poipu, a popular tourist haven, were looking for people to help clean up.
I took one of those jobs, one of maybe ten women in a group of a hundred or so other locals. It didn’t seem to matter – all of us worked like maniacs for eight hours a day, every day.
On our first day, we were lined up in groups of 15 in one of the upper parking lots of the Wailua Hotel. Below us were more lots, some of whose entrances were blocked by cars and thick mats of debris. They were filled with waist-high water, cars floating like rubber duckies, both right side up and upside down.
Palm fronds everywhere, shredded fern leaves, orchids, tropical flowers, candy wrappers, diapers, clothing of every sort, suit cases, hand-trollies, coconuts, remains of meals – we had to pick our way carefully. Our first job was to clear that upper lot so we could meet there every morning.
I was assigned to help clean the lowest parking lot where the meat lockers were kept. Most of us only had on flip-flops – we needed to show up next day wearing sneakers. The water level on that lower lot was about mid-thigh, and filthy dirty. There were shells of poisonous critters on the bottom – you really did NOT want to step on one with flip-flop feet.
It took us days to drain, clear, and clean that lower lot. Water from the upper lots kept coming down the hill, spilling in and refilling it, until we built a sandbag retaining wall to direct the water away.
The drone of the generators running the huge hoses was loud and constant, wearing on us as we worked. I brought ear plugs for everyone – I use them as I carve, so I had plenty.
When the lot was clean, we were at last able to open the 8-foot tall doors to the enormous meat storage locker rooms.
The stench that roiled and ran on out of there was like a green stinking decomposing corpse rising into the air to envelop us, carried on torrents of revolting seawater that had been trapped within.
One whiff and I fainted, keeling over and dropping like lead on the spot, only saved from falling and hitting my head by one of the other crew members, bless his heart.
At least half of us ended up relfing our guts out right there. In all my life, I have never, ever, smelled anything so horrifyingly repugnant. Rotting meat, polluted sea water that had somehow seeped under supposedly sealed doors and soaked every corner – and maggots – you have never smelled anything as bad as that rotting, maggot-filled meat, believe me.
We were thankfully given the rest of the day off so the open doors would let out the stench. I couldn’t have worked a minute more, anyway.
We spent the two next days draining all the water that remained inside the lockers themselves. It took us a full two weeks of pulling filth and shells and sand and meat and more maggots than I’d ever seen, ever, out of there.
We wiped and sponged and scraped and scrubbed every surface, nook and tiny cranny with big marine brushes all the way down to toothbrushes and dental picks. We used up great barrels full of industrial soaps and cleaners, bleach and detergent. But we did it – we got that wretched pit empty and clorox-saturated-clean. Thank goodness for the invention of heavy duty rubber gloves.
When I got back home each night, I smelled so disgusting that my kids made me take off all my clothes and stand in the yard as they hosed me down. Who can blame them?!?
At home after the last day, done with our lower level and all the other rooms and lots we were assigned, I burned my clothes.
Our house was on the very last row of houses farthest away from the beach. Water damage stained the coverings of the lower parts of the house, and went right up to the top step on the porch. An inch more and the water would have seeped into the house.
At the time, I was transitioning from studio potter to stone carver. I had set up an outside studio in the lanai to the side of the house. I realized later that it was a perfect wind tunnel, with roof and sides without ends.
The winds must have raged through there with a fury, because it was all swept away without a trace – every single one of my tools, both for pots and for stone; my kiln had disappeared; even the pieces of stone and 50-pound bags of wet clay I had stored out there were gone.
So much for my art business. A fortune in tools, materials and equipment – vanished in a matter of hours.
Nevertheless, I felt so lucky – the end of the worst damage in our neighborhood stopped a foot from the front of our property. As if there had been a force field protecting our house and the others in our row.
Houses in the immediate next row, only 50 or 60 feet away, had jumped their footings and laid there like crooked, crushed boxes even a cat wouldn’t play with.
Windows were blasted out, walls punctured and caved in, doors blown in, cars and boats lying shattered and strewn on sand-covered lawns – and everything from leaves and garbage to unidentifiable black marine goo lying on the ground in smelly blobs everywhere, some a foot thick – all the way up to that line in front of our house.
After the worst of the fray, the feeling of adventure was long gone. I had to think about what to do to make a living again. The job cleaning was thankfully over.
Since I couldn’t carve or make pots, I decided to use the paper, wax, and ink I had on hand to create batik paintings of Hawaiian legends and stories.
Instead of the bright colors you might think of when you imagine ‘tropical’ or ‘Hawaii’, I used thick, soot-black Japanese Sumi ink, along with a beautiful rich brown ink I made by combining 3 ink colors together.
I sold enough batiks to keep us in bread and water for a bit. It wasn’t until we moved to another house the next year that I could start making pots and carving again, thanks to a grant from the Small Business Administration that helped me replace tools and equipment.
But we were alive and together, under a solid roof. We were OK.
I felt blessed and protected by the Great Hand of Mystery.
Thanks for reading my story! I hope you enjoyed it.
HOW HURRICANE IWA MADE ME PIVOT
Image: POIPU OUTRIGGER
Original painting - batik on paper. 24×30
Japanese Sumi ink and home-brewed inks.
© Angela Treat Lyon 1982
text © Angela Treat Lyon 2023
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