‘Survival mode’

  • Water rushes around Piihonua bridge Friday in Hilo. (DEMIAN BARRIOS/Special to Tribune-Herald)
  • Piihonua resident Margaret Collins looks out over flood damage from Hurricane Lane in the Piihonua neighborhood Friday in Hilo.

  • Keiki help clean up debris from Hurricane Lane Friday in the Piihonua neighborhood in Hilo.
  • Flooding due to Hurricane Lane caused major damage in the Piihonua neighborhood in Hilo. (Photos by HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

  • Mud and debris are left in Collins' garage Friday from Hurricane Lane flooding the Piihonua home Thursday night in Hilo.
  • Mud is left at the door Friday from Hurricane Lane flooding Collins' Piihonua home Thursday night in Hilo.
  • Piihonua resident Margaret Collins points out water damage from Hurricane Lane in her flooded home Friday in Hilo. (Photos by HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

PIIHONUA — A swollen Wailuku River and its tributaries overflowed their banks Thursday evening, forcing a half dozen residents to evacuate.

For Margaret Collins and three tenants, voluntary evacuation wasn’t an option as flood waters turned their homes into islands. Only rescuers could save them.

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Collins, 69, said firefighters reached them about 2 a.m. Friday with lines of rope, about four hours after she awoke to find her home surrounded by water. It was too treacherous for them to be rescued sooner.

“Had they not been able to do that, we would have been waiting until the morning for the helicopter to come get us,” she said.

Collins’ ordeal began about 10 p.m. Thursday when she awoke to the sound of gushing water. She’s used to hearing the river adjacent to her property, but this time it was knocking on her door.

“I thought the gutters were coming down because I could hear water,” she said. “And I looked out my bedroom window, and there was water coming around from the back of the house.”

Collins then went to the living room, where she saw water on the other side of her glass door, rising about as high as the door knob, causing it to buckle. From there, water began seeping in, as well as through the walls.

Collins realized she was surrounded by water.

While the river was extraordinarily high, the main cause of flooding for Collins’ home appeared to be a side channel that borders her home and had clogged with debris. It overflowed as rain from Hurricane Lane drenched East Hawaii, turning gentle brooks into roaring rivers and rivers into monstrous torrents.

That night, the river itself rose high enough to dump debris on Piihonua bridge, the first time that’s occurred since the 1980s, Mayor Harry Kim recalled during a Civil Defense meeting.

The water came with enough force to knock over the 3-foot-retaining wall on the front of Collins’ property and pushed a truck down her driveway.

Collins said she went into “survival mode,” and opened her back sliding doors to allow the water to flow through her home. She grabbed her medications and her wallet, and set off her alarm, which woke up her three tenants in a two-story house behind her residence.

They would be the first to come to her rescue by helping her crawl through the bushes to get to safety on the second floor of the rental.

“We were trying to stay as calm as possible, because there was no way to escape without putting yourself in danger,” she said.

After staying overnight in the shelter at Waiakea High School, Collins returned to her home, where debris littered her carport and driveway, and sand covered her water-logged floors.

A friend told her insurance policy only covers water damage caused by broken pipes, not forces of nature, which she said hadn’t entirely sunk in.

“I haven’t digested it, and I think will wait a couple days for — what do I do next?” Collins said.

But it wasn’t hard for her to find the positives or, as she put it, the yin with the yang. She noted how the sand appeared to have partially sealed the door, perhaps preventing more damage. And the two ducks and a chicken she looks after were seen safe and happy in the yard.

“Oh, my ducks made it!” Collins said as she spotted the friendly animals. “That’s the bright spot.”

“I have to feed them,” she added, reaching for a bag of Kibbles ‘n Bits dog food. “They need to be rewarded.”

Waianuenue Avenue in Piihonua remained closed to nonresidents Friday, as residents tried to recover and county workers assess damage.

Alvin Kawauchi returned to check on his childhood home, a small plantation camp house that had been heavily damaged. Flood waters came through with enough force to wash out much of his driveway and undermine some of the support beams.

He said no one lives in the home, which he uses for storage. But Kawauchi said he had not seen any flooding like this since 1987.

“In a way, it just tells me I need to change my lifestyle,” he joked.

Gerald Kosaki, Hawaii Fire Department battalion chief, said there were ongoing rescue late Friday afternoon in Kolekole gulch, where a Jeep was trapped between a downed tree and landslide, and a home near Ninole that was flooding.

He said the county was requesting a California-based swift water team that’s on Oahu and Maui be sent to Hawaii Island to help with rescues.

“We’re depleting our resources at this time,” Kosaki said.

On Thursday, rescuers also helped five other people on Reeds Island leave their home. The area was under a voluntary evacuation.

Brian De Lima, a resident of the island, said his home was in a high spot, and wasn’t threatened by flood waters. But he’s never seen anything like it.

“The river is the highest I’ve ever seen it,” De Lima said. “It’s raging.”

Another resident, Barbara Andersen, who owns the Shipman House Bed &Breakfast, said her gauge recorded about 30 inches of rain since Tuesday night. She said the property is in a safe area, but also borders a gulch that empties into the river.

She said she could always hear the small stream — but now she can see it.

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“Right now, it’s amazing,” Andersen said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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