Kauai disaster recovery holds lessons for Lahaina

Children played in the rubble left by the fury of Hurricane Iniki, Sept. 15, 1992, near Poipu Beach on Kauai. Photo by AP Photo/Reed Saxon.

The following commentary was first published on March 6, 2024, by The Maui News. This version includes hyperlinks to the sources that support the statements.

By Malia Hill and Jonathan Helton

The rebuilding of Lahaina following the deadly wildfires of August 2023 might feel like uncharted territory, but there is historical precedent that could give Maui lawmakers some direction for how that might take place.

That is what happened on Kauai after Hurricane Iniki, which devastated Kauai in September 1992, killing seven people and injuring about 100 more. The Category 4 hurricane destroyed 1,421 homes and severely damaged at least 5,000 more, leaving more than 7,000 residents homeless. Overall, the destruction totaled more than $6 billion in 2022 dollars.

In Lahaina, the wildfires killed 101 people and destroyed more than 2,700 buildings, leaving nearly 10,000 residents displaced from their homes. Similar to Kaua, it has been estimated that rebuilding Lahaina could cost up to $6 billion.

The most useful lesson we can learn from the Iniki experience is the way Kauai eased the permitting process to allow faster rebuilding. Less than a month after the weather disaster, Kauai County Council officials approved a measure that:

• Waived all building permit fees for hurricane repairs.

• Exempted certain repairs from permit requirements, such as for non-retaining walls; roof replacement that did not include structural parts of the roof; and interior and exterior non-bearing walls, ceilings, floors and windows of single-family homes.

• Established an Office of Emergency Permitting to process permit applications within hours to a few days.

The measure also stated that residents could file for a building permit within 30 days of starting construction, and a streamlined application was made available.

Federal officials worried that letting people rebuild before getting their permits could be unsafe, but county officials stood firm–though they also adopted a measure requiring homes to withstand stronger wind forces.

Five months after the disaster — in February 1993 — Kauai lawmakers adopted an emergency ordinance that allowed people to rebuild their homes the way they were before the hurricane, without having to apply for any zoning variances. 

And almost two years later, in May 1994, the Council and mayor agreed to cut industrial and commercial tax rates by 50% for one year to help businesses recover.

Were these measures successful in expediting rebuilding after Iniki?

A 2009 study from the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawai‘i found that it took eight years for the island’s economy to return to its pre-Iniki levels, and even by the time of the study, 17 years after the hurricane, Kauai still had not entirely recovered its population and labor force. 

On the other hand, it appears that reconstruction after Inkiki took place faster than expected, despite complaints about shoddy rebuilding contractors and frustration among those who had long waits for insurance payouts.

Permitting officials worked hard to keep up with inspections, and many residents remained without permanent housing for some time. But instead of the four years pessimistically predicted by some, rebuilding efforts came closer to the 2½ years predicted by local builders.

In August 1993, less than a year after the hurricane, Kauai had issued approximately  5,357 building permits, including 3,373 for residential and 103 for nonresidential.  

By January 1994, 16 months after the hurricane, the number of residential permits issued had increased to 4,500.

Now, obviously there are differences between disasters that occurred on Kauai and in West Maui. But still, some measures that Kauai adopted after Iniki could help Lahaina residents rebuild more quickly, such as streamlined permitting and automatic zoning variances for the rebuilding of preexisting nonconforming structures.

Thankfully, the Maui County Council is already moving in this direction. For example, it is considering the recently introduced Bill 21, which would expand the county’s emergency permitting law to cover not only damaged dwellings. but also damaged or destroyed commercial structures and new housing on vacant lands. Additionally, the owners of these properties could get their permits in as few as 15 days. 

There’s also a draft bill recently approved by the Maui Planning Commission that would provide a four-year grace period for the reconstruction of nonconforming buildings destroyed in the fires.

Maui residents deserve an efficient permitting system to foster rebuilding after the wildfires, and Kauai’s experience with Iniki can be a model for recovery.

Malia Hill is the policy director and Jonathan Helton a policy researcher at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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