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Birth by Fire, Death by Water

By Staff | Feb 21, 2019

Kahana is falling into the sea.

It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening. And people are freaking out.

Of course, in the long march of history, we know this is the destiny of Maui, and Hawaii.

On the pulled back timeframe of geology, Maui is the second youngest island in the whole island chain – a fresh and adolescent million years old. She can still look forward to ten million years of life! Maui is brash, young, vibrant. The Big Island is still growing, and Molokai and Lanai are shrinking, but Maui is in the prime of her island life. Maui is No Ka ‘Oi for a reason.

Mauna Haleakala is actually the largest dormant volcano on Earth. (Number one again! Maui, what can’t you do?) Haleakala has erupted over ten times since the Roman Empire was a thing, and last erupted when Shakespeare walked the Earth (in geologic time, basically yesterday). Haleakala could still erupt again, but it’s been a few hundred years. Her volcanic life force is tapering.

And so, Maui right now is as big as she will ever be. She has peaked at 10,023 feet. The Pacific plate has slid 100 miles to the northwest over 500,000 years and whisked Maui away from the crucible where she was created: the Hawaiian hotspot.

This crucible, where all of our beloved Hawaiian islands were born, is a thousand-mile deep hole funneling halfway through the Earth’s mantle. A thousand miles! That’s like flying from San Diego to Portland, directly into the recesses of Earth!

Deepest in the unimaginably hot darkness of our interior planet, liquid metallic magma percolates slowly on its oozy journey to the surface. It slithers the length of California on its quest to emerge, to meet oxygen and hydrogen and morph into rock, and then soil and sand on the surface. This hot spot is Madame Pele’s subterranean workshop.

But volcanic islands, like humans, are mortal, and as soon as they crest the sea’s surface, their death begins. Relentless rain, watery waves and world-famous wind pour, crash and whip Maui’s shores. The island shrinks from the top, from the edge, from the middle. Ever so slowly on a human scale, but in the blink of an eye on a geologic time scale, the island diminishes.

That’s the zoomed out view. But zoom in on Kahana in 2019, and zoom the timeframe in from 10,000,000 years to ten, and then add human civilization into the mix. Now that erosion is a problem for us.

Because when West Maui development really took off was in a bygone era. That’s when the Pali road was reset with a new tunnel in 1951. That’s when the West Maui Airport opened in 1965. That’s when America was the ascendant post World War II power and could do no wrong, and West Maui grew and grew.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the world was different. People weren’t talking about rising sea levels, global warming and healthy beaches. The science then wasn’t what it is today, and so, people’s natural preferences influenced development.

Everyone loves an ocean view, the closer the better, so high-rises, houses, roads and buildings were constructed too close to beaches and on top of beaches.

Of all the places on Maui where this development happened, Kahana is presently in the most danger. Here is where the coast tilts to the north, where Lower Honoapiilani Road hugs the ocean, where the rocky coastline receives a wave-lashing from the whole Pacific Ocean, north and south. Here is where Napili rains rush down from the second wettest spot on Earth, Pu’u Kukui, washing miles and miles down ravines and river valleys, and flooding beaches, bays and roads.

And now we come to today, when Kahana high-rises are threatened and roads are crumbling into the sea. Condominiums are being fortified by seawalls and sandbags, and potentially groins, jetties and more beach nourishment are on the way. Roads are being buoyed with rocks and sandbags while county engineers consider all options.

Solutions aren’t easy, and no solution satisfies everyone. What will happen? What should we do? Engineers, politicians, public meetings, letters to the editor, private Facebook groups, sign waving and advocacy. Everyone has different skin in the game, and many have an opinion, often strong.

A kind, clever, interesting man came to my house recently to talk to me about this. He works for a firm tasked to talk to community members and gather information, opinions and perspectives, and then provide that input to another engineering firm, which will then try to recommend a solution.

He told me that everything is on the table. Doing nothing is one option. Doing something is another. Something could include seawalls, beach retention structures like groins and jetties, beach replenishment through imported sand, and in general, a fortified beachfront to protect high-rises.

It’s so hard to choose a solution. But we’ve got to choose something.

Kahana is falling into the sea, little by little, day by day. We know how this ends. When we have all shuffled off this mortal coil, and when our names have eroded into history along with Maui Nei, Kahana will be gone.

But today, we are here, and we care, and we want to preserve this place at this moment. We are humans living on a human timescale, and these beaches, buildings, waves, whales, roads and reefs are all precious to us.

Kahana is falling into the sea.

It’s time to pull together to make deeply considered decisions, to forge compromises and to craft creative solutions for our shared future here. Are you ready?