Twenty-five Years Later, Former Kaua‘i Mayor JoAnn Yukimura Remembers ‘Iniki’s Fury
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
On the evening of Sept. 10, 1992, the lives of JoAnn Yukimura and the 50,000 people living on Kaua‘i were about to change dramatically.
Just after 6 p.m., Yukimura, the fresh-faced, new, liberal mayor of Kaua‘i, was onstage at the Hawaii Women Lawyers’ annual meeting at the Hawaii Prince Hotel in Honolulu with the state’s two other women county leaders, Linda Lingle from Maui and Lorraine Inouye from the Big Island, when a man approached Yukimura to deliver a message to her.
“It was a call from my administrative assistant, Tom Batey, who said, ‘It looks like it is going to be a direct hit; you have to get home,’” Yukimura recalled in a recent phone interview.
An hour earlier, the Central Pacific Hurricane Center had issued a hurricane watch after the storm’s path had suddenly turned toward Kaua‘i. At 8:30 p.m., the center upgraded its forecast to a hurricane warning.
‘Iniki would turn out to be the strongest and most destructive hurricane ever to hit Hawai‘i, and on that day, it was only hours away from roaring onto Kaua‘i’s south shore.
As Yukimura would say later, for people living on Kaua‘i, everything would be measured in terms of “before ‘Iniki, and after ‘Iniki.”
In the coming weeks, Yukimura, now a Kaua‘i County councilmember, would learn that one of her few breaks as mayor was that she had just hired Tom Batey for the position that is now called “managing director.” Just a month earlier, Batey had completed a 14-year careeer with the Hawai‘i State Civil Defense.
Through Batey’s contacts, Yukimura and several cabinet members who also were on O‘ahu were flown back to Kaua‘i on a Hawai‘i Air National Guard C-130, as the commercial airliners had already shut down due to the hurricane approaching the state.
In a separate telephone interview, Batey, who still resides on Kaua‘i, recalled that while waiting for Yukimura to return, he had begun drafting the reams of reports and requests that would be needed to ask for state and federal storm assistance.
“He wrote out a three-page, single-spaced memo for me to give the governor, asking for every single type of aid we were going to need,” said Yukimura.
“That was the memo that the mayor of New Orleans didn’t send after Katrina and it caused a lot of trouble. Tom knew all the sections by heart,” Yukimura said.
Upon arriving back on the island, Yukimura went directly to the Kaua‘i emergency operations center. She also called the Princeville Hotel, now called the St. Regis, and asked to use it as an emergency shelter. That night, she slept on the floor of her office in the County Building. In a matter of hours, the 550-acre island was about to be shredded.
The next day was spent hunkering down, although Yukimura recalls that “everyone followed the instructions to stay inside, except my maverick family, who went down to Näwiliwili to watch the big waves, something I wasn’t aware of at the time,” she said.
Shortly after 1 p.m., high winds knocked out the island’s phone and electrical lines. By 2 o’clock, ‘Iniki was pounding the island. According to reports from weather.com, the eye of ‘Iniki, which means “sharp and piercing” in Hawaiian, hovered over the island for 40 long minutes.
At about 6 that evening, the doors of the Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall, where some 1,200 residents and tourists had taken shelter from ‘Iniki, were finally opened.
Six people lost their lives in the hurricane and about a thousand had sustained injuries.
‘Iniki caused roughly $3 billion in adjusted for inflation damages. More than 14,000 homes were affected — 1,421 of them were destroyed and 5,152 sustained major damage.
The next morning, Yukimura met Gov. John Waihee for a National Guard helicopter tour of the entire island.
“As I’m remembering it now, it is kind of emotional,” Yukimura said, her voice breaking slightly. “There was just destruction everywhere.
“When we hit the Näpali coast, it was like the cliffs had aged a hundred years. The cliffs were all grey because there was no green; there were no leaves. There was a huge grey pallor over the whole cliff side.”
By the time the flight got to Po‘ipü, Yukimura said she was having trouble even recognizing the island where she was born and raised.
“I couldn’t get my bearings looking at the coastline. It looked like a giant claw scraped off everything.”
It wasn’t just wind damage. High waves and storm-driven sea surges had washed away beaches and landmarks.
Hotels stood with every window blown out; house after house had lost its roof. County officials said almost every structure on Kaua‘i had sustained some damage.
The wind speed was estimated at 140 miles an hour, a Category 4 storm. But there was one measurement, according to the Honolulu Advertiser, which showed that the highest recorded wind speed from Hurricane ‘Iniki was 227 miles per hour. That was recorded by the Navy’s Mäkaha Ridge radar station’s digital weather station, whose wind gauging equipment blew off after taking the measurement during the storm.
“By the time I got back to the airport, I was in tears. I don’t know if the press could see it, but I was really moved by what I saw.
“I think I said something like it broke my heart and that was the headline the next day,” Yukimura said.
The stories of individuals stepping up in the face of ‘Iniki’s fury were everywhere. Yukimura recalls that one of the first things she did was to request the assistance of the Hawai‘i National Guard because she remembered that 10 years earlier, there had been looting during Hurricane ‘Iwa.
“Even before the official order came, I remember a guardsman on the west side who saw that the Big Save store windows had been cracked and were opened by the storm. He put on his Guard uniform and he stood watch overnight by the store, even before the orders,” Yukimura recalled.
One of the county’s first jobs was to clear the roads so that emergency equipment could move. Yukimura recalls one family far away from the main highway asking a county crew for help.
“The man heard the construction crews and waved them down and asked them to clear his driveway first because his wife was in labor. They did, and he got to the hospital in time,” Yukimura said.
Kaua‘i’s largely rural nature was a benefit, Yukimura and Batey said, because it had a population that was used to camping and spending time outdoors, and they had gone through a major hurricane only a decade earlier.
“Some of the people actually entered the evacuation shelters with chainsaws because they knew they would have to chainsaw their way out when the storm passed, and they were right,” Yukimura said.
One of the problems was what to do with the nearly 10,000 tourists on the island at the time who desperately wanted to leave. The commercial airlines did not fly for nearly a week and Batey was left to squeeze space for tourists on outgoing National Guard flights that were bringing emergency supplies to the island.
Among the stranded was filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who was wrapping up on-location shooting for his film, “Jurassic Park,” when ‘Iniki hit. He and 130 of his cast and crew remained safely in a hotel during the storm. But Spielberg had access to a “stretch DC-8,” which, according to Batey, could carry more than 220 people.
“He asked if he could fly it into Lïhu‘e and I got his people in and then filled up the rest with tourists,” Batey recalls.
To coordinate tourist flights out, Batey commandeered the county attorneys and ordered them to the Lïhu‘e Airport “to serve as passenger agents to organize the tourists for flights.”
Looking back, both Batey and Yukimura said Kaua‘i was as prepared as it could have been for the disastrous storm, but Batey warned, “You can never plan for everything and it is going to be a long haul to get back to normal.”
Richard Borreca is a Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.