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Hawaii Taken by Storm; Six Weeks of Rain Leave
 Fouled Beaches and Ruined Vacations
By Kirsten Scharnberg, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 15, 2006 - HONOLULU--The tourism Web site clearly was never updated to reflect the rains that came for more than 40 days and 40 nights, the rains that unleashed dam breaks that killed whole families, the rains that flooded sewer systems and caused these legendary beaches to be contaminated by nearly 50 million gallons of toxic sludge.

"The weather in Hawaii is perfect," boasts the site, which ranks fine weather as the No. 1 reason to visit the islands. "Sure, it rains here," the ad copy continues, "but that doesn't bother most people because all you have to do is drive around to the sunny side of any island for almost guaranteed sun."

But for the better part of the last two months, the unvarnished truth has been grim here in the Aloha State. Torrential downpours not only have destroyed untold vacations, weddings and getaways but have turned deadly and reaped environmental consequences that the islands will be dealing with for months and months to come. Police are investigating a possible homicide involving a man reportedly pushed into the sewage-filled waters near Waikiki Beach who got a flesh-eating disease and died.

Until the sun began sporadically peeking out this week, there has been no proverbial sunny side on any Hawaiian island, as violent storms have deluged the state with more precipitation in just three months than Hawaii usually gets all year. Even Mt. Waialeale on Kauai, considered the wettest place on Earth, got more than 92 inches of rain in March, breaking its previous record of 90 inches set in April 1971.

At best, the record Hawaiian rains have been deeply disappointing for tourists, many of whom saved for years to leave their cold hometowns in the dead of winter and come to Hawaii for weddings, family vacations or their first--and often only--trip to the nation's 50th state. Local wedding planners talk of brides who refused to give up their dreams of beach nuptials and forced miserable guests to stand, drenched, in the sand as thunderstorms roiled overhead.

But at worst, the weather has proved deadly.

For nearly two weeks on Oahu, the island that is home to the state's capital of Honolulu, talk has centered on the tragic case of Oliver Johnson, a mortgage broker and watersport aficionado from Florida who fell in love with Hawaii more than six years ago and moved here to surf, swim and dive.

On March 31, while out with friends in Waikiki, he fell into the Ala Wai Canal, which runs through Honolulu and dumps into the Pacific Ocean. The canal has been contaminated since March 24, when the city's flooded sewer system released raw sewage, a spill that left Hawaii's world-famous white-sand beaches and pristine blue waters toxic.

Within 24 hours, Johnson was deathly ill with a flesh-eating bacterial infection. Doctors amputated a leg in hopes of stemming the quickly spreading infection, but relatives said his body continued to swell to nearly triple its size.

On April 6, Johnson, 34, died after his family elected to remove life support. Police now are investigating Johnson's death as a possible homicide after reports that someone pushed him into the tainted waters during an altercation; his filthy, bacteria-infested wallet was dredged from the waters and sent as evidence for testing to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"It seems fairly clear to me that had the sewage spill not occurred, he'd still be alive," said Jim Leavitt, the Hawaii attorney who has been hired by Johnson's family to investigate the death.

Johnson's family and friends gathered for a memorial this week on his favorite beach. They placed traditional Hawaiian leis in the ocean, and the rings of flowers floated out to sea on the rhythmic waves Johnson so often had surfed.

7 others also killed

Other families also have gathered to mourn the effects of the rains, which began Feb. 19 when the islands' trade winds stopped and a massive storm system stalled over Hawaii.

Christina McNeese, 22, and Daniel Arroyo, 33, were planning to marry on March 18. But four days before the wedding, even as family members were en route from the mainland for the event, the Kaloko dam on the island of Kauai burst, unleashing 300 million gallons of fast-running water and mud. McNeese, who was 7 months pregnant, and Arroyo were washed away and killed.

In a nearby home, a young family--mother, father and 2-year-old child--also were washed away and killed. Two other men, including one from Alstead, N.H., where extensive flooding killed six people last year, also were swept to their deaths. Several of the victims' bodies remain missing.

As the rains abate, Hawaiian officials are beginning to assess the cost of the damage. One state transportation official said the beating Hawaii's roads took from the constant wet conditions was comparable to a hurricane. Gov. Linda Lingle has estimated the rains caused more than $50 million in damages statewide, and she and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) sent letters to President Bush this week, urging him to declare Hawaii a federal disaster area.

Black eye for tourism?

What remains to be seen is how Hawaii's economic lifeblood--tourism--will be affected by such horrible and long-lasting weather. Certainly, thousands of tourists who were in Hawaii throughout February and March went home with stories of floods, dam breaks and toxic waste instead of golden tans and photos of breathtaking beaches.

Families who visited Kauai during the dam break will tell of being stranded in their cars overnight when roads were washed out and hotels could not be reached. Entrepreneurs in Waikiki began selling "I Survived the Hawaii Rains of 2006" T-shirts.

The state cannot afford--literally--for Americans to get a bad impression of Hawaii. Tourism is the state's top source of revenue; about 7.5 million visitors spent a record $11.5 billion in Hawaii in 2005.

Still, even as the sun has begun to return to Hawaii, the traditional spring rains have not totally abated.

"It was just our luck to come when there have been floods of actual biblical proportions," Linda Webber of Orange County, Calif., said Friday as she and her family prepared to leave Waikiki to return home.

Yet one glance at the Webbers' youngest son, 10-year-old Stephen, reveals the light at the end of the storm. The boy was pink--not the deep, peeling red that is customary among tourists in Hawaii--but pink enough to prove his skin saw some sun during a weeklong visit.

"We've experienced weather like we've never experienced before in our lives," said Marsha Weinert, the state tourism liaison. "But thank goodness, the rains have stopped. The sun is back. Hawaii is back."

Weinert gets paid to make, well, sunny predictions like that. But for at least the coming week, the National Weather Service backs her up.

The forecast for the famous--albeit, in some cases, still potentially contaminated--beaches of Waikiki is for near-constant sun for the entire next week.

kscharnberg@tribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune

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