Two Stories, One Amazing Place: Kauai and Hurricane Iniki

The first time I went to Kauai was for a month in between my junior and senior years of college, 1991. There was supposed to be this amazing solar eclipse seen best from The Big Island, but I went to Kauai because of the hiking in this one valley called Kalalau. It’s on the north shore of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast… and it’s gorgeous. Like nothing I have ever seen prior or since. It has every type of terrain you can imagine… jungle and rainforest and desert and cliffs and lava rock and switchbacks and waterfalls and huge dragonflies and goats and mosquitoes and mud and guava and papaya and mangoes…. it was just awesome. It’s 11 miles into the valley and a strenuous hike but very much worth all the sweat and pain. I was carrying about 30lbs on my 105lb frame and to this day my back is bad because of it. Again totally worth it.

We were told to wrap a lava rock in a tea leaf found on the trail and say a lil prayer to the gods to protect us on the hike.. which we did right away. This I think was forshadowing on this life changing journey. We hiked the trail for two days… taking our time and seeing everything… lounging by the enormous waterfalls and enjoying the scenery. We saw ferrel goats everywhere and were amazed at their agility to climb even the most steep and jagged terrain. We made it into the Valley finally and set up camp under the canopy of these beautiful trees right next to the beach. There was a fresh water waterfall where we could “shower” and the water was drinkable. Unfortunately the waves were so huge and violent that going in the ocean was not an option… they were 16 foot and breaking close to shore… cutting a weird jetty like finger through the sand to the mouth of a cave at the far end of the beach. The odd thing was that the waves at that time of year on that side of the island are supposed to be the calmest of the year… and this was unusual so we were told.

One of the first people I met was a guy who dubbed himself Kalalau Ron.

He was nekked… large… hairy and looked like Fidel Castro with a Boston accent…. and he made bamboo flutes. Imagine it. He played these flutes like nobody’s business and I bought one from him. He told me this story since he saw us flying a stunt kite on the beach. He said that a kayaker was propelling himself with a kite along the coast coming to this beach and saw a hunter with bow and arrow up on top of the cliff face shoot a goat. The goat fell to the bottom of the cliff into the water and the kayaker paddled over to retrieve the arrow as a souvenier… as he got close to the goat a tiger shark came up and ate the entire goat horns and all right in front of him. Needless to say the kayaker was in a hurry to get out of the water…

So we spent some time in the Valley… hiking and enjoying the natural water slides in the streams, picking the fruit that the hippies had grown in terraces in the 60’s and generally enjoying the summer in a beautiful place. We decided to move camp to the caves to be closer to some friends we made there (there were max about 6 people in the Valley). The cave was under a sheer lava rock cliff about 500 feet high and on the opposite side of a rock face from the waterfall. A couple days later a large group of Santa Cruz students came in and camped next to us in the cave. We all enjoyed looking at the stars becoming aligned at night- jupiter was very large and bright… and the waves were still huge and crashing… and the jetty of water like a finger, pointing right to us in the cave…

One afternoon about 5pm or so… I was gathering water and wood for a fire to start dinner… I was at the mouth of the cave just under the lip of it when some of the students who were standing just outside the mouth of the cave started to scream and look up. I walked out to tell them to move if they were getting hit with rocks from the goats walking above when I looked up… and saw a girl falling… tumbling to her death… her head hit… she lost consciousness… went limp and fell into a heap about 15 feet in front of where I was standing. Obviously, I was in shock. I started to run towards her… then hesitated, what could I do? Then ran again and stopped. Her friend got to her first… lifted her arm and “unraveled” her leg… said she had a pulse and looked up with a searching look on his face seemingly looking for some kind of answer or directive, guidance, we made eye contact… what could be done? We are 11 miles from civilization… no way to phone or alert anyone… no cell phones. It was a moment that lasted a lifetime looking at each other, two strangers bonded for this long moment in shock and awe. We covered her body and the same friend that felt her pulse paced back and forth freaking out until he basically jumped to some sort of conclusion in his head and started swimming out to a passing boat about 300 yards off the coast in huge waves… he flagged it down, then swam back to shore saying they were radioing the authorities. We all sat around in silence, and weirdness. It was so strange in that what once was this beautiful paradise was now a threatening and dangerous place that took an innocent life. So innocent in fact. She had no shoes on which was odd since the lava she had been hiking on was so jagged and her friends said that she was so excited about this trip because she had never really been hiking before. It was June 17, 1991 and her name was Amy Snader. About three hours later a helicopter landed and took her body away. This is a pic of her and the other is the spot where she landed from the top of the cliff you see in the pic. Notice the scale compared to the waterfall, and the cliff is about twice that high to the top.

That night as I lay on the beach looking at the stars almost aligned… I could not tell which way the ocean was for the echo coming off the cave. It was a strange night’s sleep. The following day we woke up to the ocean calm as a lake. The jetty had pointed right to where she landed… and there was now a heart formed out of shells and rocks where her body had been. As I looked up to the top of the cliff I saw a book flapping in the wind that no one ever went to get.

We left the valley soon after… I needed to get my head together.

You can use your own imagination, as I have for years, wondering what that was all about. But I will never mess with the gods of Hawaii… I will never remove coral from the island (a bad omen, ask any native) and I will always have complete reverence for Mother Nature, and respect for the earth and the stars and the water.

The following year I returned to the islands to teach at a YMCA camp for the summer on Oahu. After my wonderful stint of summer work there I went back to Kauai to return to that Valley for my birthday in September. I spent a week in the Valley with some friends from the camp and my boyfriend Dan had come from LA to join the fun. We decided to hike out the day after my birthday on Sept 10th and got a hotel room to relax and have a good dinner. We were evacuated the next morning at 6am and told to go to the local grade school because Hurricane Iniki was bearing down coming right for a direct hit to the island. Everything was being boarded up… people were running like mad everywhere…

We went to the shelter and sat in a rental car for hours watching the storm come in… soon we could not see the coast. We decided to go into the school. As soon as I stepped out of the car I was blown about 15 feet… I screamed for Dan and he grabbed me… and we ran for the school rooms. I spent the next 10 hours standing outside against a cinder block retaining wall with an Alaskan guy and a Sioux Indian… both the most amazing people and just hysterically funny and calm. We had a blast watching the island fly by us.

The Saffir-Simpson scale on the island broke at 225 mph winds… and the sustained winds were clocked at 150 with gusts up to 175mph. This would make this hurricane a Category 5. The school was torn apart, the roof peeled off like a can of tuna… debris flying everywhere. Coconuts broke through cinder block walls like cannonballs. I have never been so in awe of nature. The eye came… and it was eery and sunny… with strong gusts of wind… we all walked around to see what was happening. Then it got dark again and we rode out another 4 hours.

The next day we surveyed the damage and there was nothing left of the towns. We walked down to the beach and around the town to complete destruction.

No one had water… the tourists were freaking out because of no cigarrettes… no beers… nothing cold.

We stayed on the island for another few days after the tourists were evacuated… but left because we were adding to the mouths that needed to be fed. We saw the true hawaiian spirit of the people come shining through in magnitude… we had luaus… fresh fish… rice… and ate better after the storm than any time I can remember. All the people came from their homes and businesses to cook what they had and feed everyone … it was a beautiful thing. When we finally left the island we drove our battered rental car to the stadium in Lihue and parked it in the football field with all the other rental cars abandoned there. We never did get a bill…

One article I read just recently about it had this to say:

Hurricane Iniki was recorded as a category 4 and category 5 hurricane, depending on the monitors you consult. However, something happened on Makaha ridge during Iniki that was literally off the scale. On October 7, 1992, the Honolulu Advertiser ran the article below. During the storm, the United States Naval radar station apparently registered gusts at 227 Miles Per Hour!

What makes this even more cryptic and bizarre is that the wind gauging machine was apparently destroyed by the hurricane immediately after this 227 clocking. The highest winds recorded on this planet, outside of a tornado, have been 231 Miles Per hour at Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. This has been a Guiness book of World Records staple for a while.

With only 4 miles per hour difference, and the wind machine basically torn apart during the storm, it is not unreasonable to ask this question.

Did Iniki break the world record for wind velocity at Makaha Ridge on September 11, 1992?

I never tell this story anymore… but as we enter yet another hurricane season here in Florida I am always reminded of my first. Natural disasters make you humble… and show you first hand how small and insignificant you really are compared to Mother Nature…


~ by Michelle Sammartino-Zeto on June 29, 2010.

2 Responses to “Two Stories, One Amazing Place: Kauai and Hurricane Iniki”

  1. Thank you for your story! I visited Kauai in September of 1992 …. truly th most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Toward the end of our trip, we found an amazing beach with crazy waves that we were young and foolish enough to swim in without fear! Perfect and amazing. We left the island as scheduled on Tuesday, September 8, completely oblivious to what was about to happen there. Oddly, I’m sad we missed it. It’s a magical island to be sure, and I would have liked to have been a part of that adventure!!! Thank you for sharing!

  2. I just happened to be thinking of this particular day because I too was there when this particular hurricane hit. No natural phenomenon has compared since. I was born and raised on Kauai; an area near Waimea in a small village by the seaside called Pakala. It was a bright day just as any other, raking the leaves that have fallen from the giant mango tree that hung over our house. The clouds rolled in, Ill never forget it because it was also the same exact time my grandma suffered lockjaw. She couldnt move and the winds were picking up. I finally got her in the house just as the rains swept in. Since there was no real warning system back then, the horn didnt go off til last minute. By that time, the storm was ripping thru houses on the shore and the waves were slamming against the coasts. The aftermath left everything wiped. Stores were charging highway robbery prices and everything went into lockdown. It was also the time I had to have my grandma take an emergency helicopter to Honolulu just to be treated cuz nothing was available on the island. Right up til her death she always said she would have died had it not been for me. Im not sure how true that was, I was 3 at the time. Although I am unhappy with the events, Im grateful for events such as this one. As you previously mentioned, mother nature has a way of reminding you that after all your trials and tribulations, it is still nothing compared to the unwitting storm that possibly awaits all of us. Mahalo and Malama pono oi

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