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Getaways: Far & Away
January 9, 1997

Photo of damaged Sheraton Kauai

Kauai's economy suffers as scars from Hurricane Iniki heal


PRINCEVILLE, Hawaii -- Four years after Hurricane Iniki ravaged Kauai, tourism is back, most hotels are rebuilt, rain and sun have healed physical scars -- and "The Garden Island's" economy remains on the rocks.

The Princeville Hotel, which took 13 months to reopen, seems set in paradise. Wraparound views from a football field-size lobby take in Hanalei Bay (said to have inspired the song "Puff the Magic Dragon") and Makana Peak ("Bali Hai" in the movie "South Pacific").

The columns are topped with gilded lotuses. The spaghetti with meat sauce goes for $24. And in the gift shop -- selling $195 Bobby Jones golf sweaters and $170 Nicole Miller shirts adorned with cocktail glasses and chili peppers -- Kim Pa has one word for the economy: "Terrible."

Her horror stories tumble out: The ex-boyfriend still struggling to recover from a house that was leveled, the aunt who lost her insurance payment when Hawaiian Insurance & Guaranty Co. Ltd. went bust.

"Construction was good after the hurricane," says Pa, who was born on Kauai and educated at the Kamehameha Schools for native Hawaiians. "But a lot of the work went to people off the island and from the mainland."

Down the road at Hanalei town, an old-style clutch of cottages set below mountains like emerald shark fins, trucker Ray Duarte unloads produce at the Postcards cafe. Raft excursions, kayak and bike rentals, and fields of the indigenous staple taro help hold the fragile economy together here.

A post-Iniki repair boom kept Duarte's company busy for a while.

"After the hurricane, they came down in force," Duarte says, his forehead gleaming with sweat in the bright autumn sun. "Carpenters, people like that -- they had lots of work."

But now, he says, "We're real slow."

The government's official Kauai unemployment rate has averaged 11.3 percent this year, twice that of the state. If you counted discouraged dropouts from the workforce, it would go much higher, says First Hawaiian Bank economist Leroy Laney.

Back in 1990 and 1991, the Kauai jobless rate was 4.1 percent and the state as a whole was 2.8 percent. Then came the 1992 hurricane, which caused $1.8 billion in damage just as Hawaii slipped into a four-year recession that continues today.

"If the state had been booming, there would have been a lot more incentive to bring it back a lot quicker," Laney says.

State government officials estimate Kauai's population grew from 51,600 in 1990 to 56,100 in 1995. But people on the island talk of mass departures.

"I don't know where they get those figures," says Wendee Van Gieson, general manager of Fast Freight Inc., a 12-year-old shipper based in Lihue, Kauai's biggest town.

For the past two years, far more families have moved off the island than on, she says; last summer she was moving three to five a week.

Hawaii's Department of Education expected an increase of 400 in Kauai school enrollment this fall; instead it fell by 100 pupils.

"The bank people tell us, 'It's going to get better, it's going to get better,'" Van Gieson says. "And it hasn't -- people just keep leaving."

On a positive note, tourist visits in 1996 could reach 1 million for the first time since Iniki (they were 1.3 million in 1991). Power usage last year topped pre-Iniki levels. A government missile range may expand.

But for every step forward there has been one back, Laney says.

Alexander & Baldwin's 97-year-old McBryde sugar plantation closed this year, with 200 layoffs offsetting new jobs created last year by the reopening of the large Marriott hotel.

Coffee production is back after severe Iniki damage, and some growers are trying exotic fruits like rambutan, moya and lychee for sale to Asian immigrants here and on the mainland. But they don't make up for lost jobs in the cane fields, and it's unclear if all three remaining sugar plantations can continue indefinitely.

Even tourism can hardly be considered in a boom phase. Though the number of visits has risen, the average length of a tourist stopover is down, Laney points out.

In rental-car brochures, ads for helicopter tours boast of prices cut from $135 pre-Iniki levels to $88 for a 45-minute helicopter ride past the "Jurassic Park" waterfalls, the Na Pali coast where roads end and the cliffs tower nearly 4,000 feet, and Waimea Canyon, "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific."

Four big hotels remain closed, including three at Poipu Beach on Kauai's south side.

There, body-boarders paddle into the surf and snorkelers circle, shielded by a lava outcropping, near the ruined Stouffer Waiohai and Poipu Beach Resort.

A chain-link fence keeps the curious away from the hotels, where dead plants poke up from balconies. Whole front wall sections have been ripped away, cabinets hang crazily from the exposed interior walls. The fence, heavily rusted, serves as a hanger for beach towels, caps and sandals.

Rebuilding is under way, finally, at the Sheraton Kauai Resort, where flats of roof tiles sit.

Chris Fujita, a Kauai Electric technician, squats with his surfboard on the beach. His personal index of economic indicators isn't good.

Hundreds of people applied for a handful of jobs when the mom 'n' pop Ishihara Market opened in Waimea, he says. The restaurants are empty at 7 p.m. The classified ads are full of people trying to rent their homes so they can move elsewhere for work; no one sells a house now if they can help it because prices have fallen so far.

"Everyone's leaving," Fujita says. "I don't think it's hit bottom yet."

Harold Uhane Jim, 64, born and raised on Kauai, survived Iniki's attack on his souvenir shop but moved to Kailua-Kona on Hawaii's Big Island recently to be close to family after his wife died.

His ponytail and mustache graying, a carved bone and wood fishhook hanging on a grass strand around his neck, Jim stands in his souvenir booth surrounded by shell jewelry and mobiles that clack in the breeze.

"You can have all the tourists you like but how are you going to get them to spend," he says with a rueful hand gesture and a smile.

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