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Officials discussing proposal to move lifeguard tower to Kaanapali Beach

By Staff | Dec 7, 2017

LAHAINA – An e-mail thread crossed the desktop of the Lahaina News last week regarding the possibility of relocating the lifeguard tower at Hanakao’o Beach Park to Pu’u Keka’a (Black Rock).

Colin Yamamoto, battalion chief, Ocean Safety, County of Maui, Department of Fire & Public Safety is behind the potential runaway suggestion.

In the e-mail thread, Yamamoto wrote to Sen. Roz Baker on Nov. 13: “I just had a meeting with Mayor (Alan) Arakawa and Fire Chief Jeff Murray today in the Mayor’s Office. Both have given their blessing to move lifeguards from Hanakao’o to an area between Sheraton Resort and Kaanapali Beach Hotel, next to the public right of way access.”

A controversial statement, the battalion chief has backpedaled since then, with these words to the Lahaina News on Nov. 30: “Obviously, community support and feedback is really important for this idea to move forward.”

Perhaps the “blessings” term was an exaggeration.

Rod Antone, communications director for the County of Maui, also softened Yamamoto’s bold words: “What’s happening is that we’re looking at ways to help mitigate the drownings that happen at Black Rock… these are all very, very early discussions. It’s just an idea that is being talked about – nothing set in stone as of yet.”

In Fire Chief Murray’s defense, he was off-island and unavailable to comment, as was Baker.

The goal, in all cases, is to reduce the number of drownings at Kaanapali Beach.

Daniel Galanis of the state Department of Health summarized Emergency Medical Services data from 2008 through 2016 in a September correspondence to Yamamoto: “There were 129 cases, not including three others with ‘Kaanapali Beach’ as the location. The majority (63 percent or 81) were in the area from Black Rock south to Kaanapali Beach Hotel, followed by 30 percent (39) further south to the Marriott. Only a minority of either Kahekili (4 percent, five) or Hanakao’o (3 percent, four),” were reported.

The trend is increasing, according to another chart attached to the thread, with 17 (81 percent) since 2011.

No one is arguing with the facts, but relocating the lifeguards at Canoe Beach to Kaanapali Beach Resort is seen as another West Side take-away and is being met with a cold shoulder.

Mike Tihada is a lifetime paddler born and raised in Lahaina. He offered his opinion: “I feel this is a sensitive subject. They are removing county lifeguards from a county facility, removing them from a beach where our local community gather and frequent the area. This beach is used for recreational purposes like canoe paddling and surfing, family gatherings and just a place where the community can just hang out. They are moving the lifeguards from a community area to accommodate tourists in the Kaanapali area, which is located on state property. I believe the state should be funding a new tower with personnel, not taking the existing one from Canoe Beach.”

Wayne Hedani is the president of Kaanapali Operations Association. He spoke to the Lahaina News on his own behalf.

“My own personal observation is that since Hanakao’o Beach Park is a county park with a host of youth activities, the lifeguard station should remain there covering county liabilities.

“The beach at Black Rock,” Hedani continued, “is a state kuleana; and, while the incidents are higher there, the jurisdiction is the state’s. This is also complicated by the state’s reluctance to cover county lifeguards for liability. It would be nice if both locations were covered.”

“It would be great to have LG’s (lifeguards) at both Pu’u Keka’a and Hanakao’o, but fiscal challenges prevent that from happening. So the question is where best can we maximize the services LG’s provide to make the biggest impact in reducing death and injury. We still need private, state and HGEA support to make it a reality,” Yamamoto explained.

The logical question that begs to be asked is: why is Kaanapali Beach more dangerous than Hanakao’o?

Ocean Safety Officer Tamara Paltin answered not as a county employee but as a concerned citizen.

“Personally, I think it’s the high concentration of tourists (after all it’s a master planned resort area) who may not realize they are getting older and can’t do all the things they once enjoyed or may have pre-existing medical conditions; and they are doing strenuous activities they don’t normally do – snorkeling, swimming against the current (mostly back side) or jumping off cliffs (mostly front side).

“People also drown annually at Napili/Kapalua/Honolua Bay snorkeling and/or swimming against the current, and while those are busy places, there isn’t the same concentration of resort, and tourist activities as there are at Ka’anapali,” Paltin observed.

Hedani generally agreed with Paltin’s assessment: “I believe we have more incidents at Black Rock due to the higher number of people in the water at that location, some of whom may not be in fit condition.”

Na Kupuna O Maui has been a longtime, persistent, in-your face advocate of ocean safety at Canoe Beach.

“We have been fighting to protect the keiki, paddlers, community and visitors at Hanakao’o for the past decade,” Aunty Patty Nishiyama said. “Let’s not worsen the already dangerous situation of boats and swimmers in the same area where tragedies have already occurred.”

West Side County Councilmember Elle Cochran was consulted. “Battalion Chief Colin Yamamoto requested that our office help coordinate a community meeting,” Sarah D. Pajimola, Cochran’s executive assistant, noted, adding this statement about Cochran’s position: “Elle would prefer two lifeguard stations, and state participation for the state-beach tower.”

Kai Nishiki of the West Maui Community Association was asked to help organize a meeting. “We have heard concerns regarding current staffing problems, removing lifeguard services from our county beach park to service a primarily visitor used state beach, the need for both areas to be adequately staffed and questions about the proposed new tower location at Pu’u Keka’a.

“We are working to set up a community meeting involving state and county representatives as soon as possible,” Nishiki confirmed.

Yamamoto said the Lahaina News will be kept up to date on the matter.