Hawaii County Looks to Stem Flood Hazards

November 26, 2007

Hawaii County has met a deadline to save Big Island residents’ federal flood insurance coverage, but at least one County Council member is not satisfied.

The council voted unanimously this week to approve a bill that puts the county in line with National Flood Insurance Program standards before a Nov. 30 deadline.

If the deadline had been missed, it may have cost residents their federal flood insurance coverage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also could have refused to assist in the event of any disaster.

The bill strengthens the county’s flood control regulations in hazard areas identified by the FEMA. It also improves stormwater drainage and runoff standards and establishes requirements for structures that suffer repetitive losses due to flooding.

South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford called the bill a “housekeeping” measure that does not go far enough to protect property and lives on the Big Island.

“This is just the first step,” she said. “This bill does not offer any additional protection to 99 percent of the island. We need to address that.”

At least three other council members agree with Ford, and they expect to continue working on flood control regulations.

Ford made substantial amendments to the bill, which was introduced in February by the Public Works director and finally adopted as a sixth draft.

Because FEMA typically concerns itself only with population centers, Ford said many other areas of the island were omitted from the original bill.

“The problem is because of our rampant development. We will never stop flooding, but there are things we can do,” she said. “Our first job as county officials is public health, safety and welfare. It’s painstaking, but it’s crucial.”

Ford said that responsibility is the driving force behind her perseverance on the issue.

“We have ignored people who have been experiencing flooding for many years,” she said. “People are flooding their neighbors, and they are getting away with it. We are going to pay the bill one way or another.”

Many of Ford’s amendments now are incorporated in a second bill that imposes strict flood control regulations islandwide.

Those measures have met with opposition from local contractors, architects and engineers who say the changes were unnecessary.

The professional community, including members of Hawaii Society of Professional Engineers and American Institute of Architects, assisted in drafting the bills, and will be involved in refining Ford’s second effort.

The county’s existing flood control law is the most stringent in the state — not surprising as the Big Island comprises five volcanic mountains and the entire island essentially is on a hillside.

“This island has a unique geology. On our island, it’s almost all on a fairly intense slope,” Ford said. “It’s not like a California or an Arizona. It’s different here from Kansas. The problem is who is this affecting downslope.”

Although Ford targeted the issue in response to chronic and regular flooding in Kona neighborhoods, every district across the island has experienced problems.

In the 1980s, Waiono Meadows in Holualoa, above Kona, was swamped.

In the 1990s, a flood caused extensive destruction in Pahala in the district of Kau, as 19 inches of rain fell in 24 hours.

Rains over three-day period in February 2000 drenched Hilo and, in 2004, more than 30 inches of rain in Puna led to evacuations.

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