With 90 miles of rugged coastline that is mostly unguarded, a growing desire from visitors to explore remote locations, and limited public safety resources, local leaders have their hands full.
As first reported by the Investigate Unit on Monday, five months into this year, Kauai is already close to tripling the four drowning deaths seen on other islands in all of 2012. The peak year of Kauai drownings was 2008, when there were 16 such deaths. But at the rate of the drownings so far this year, the island could certainly surpass that record high. Over the last decade, more than 100 people have drowned on this tiny island. Most of the victims were visiting Kauai.
Because of these tragedies, Hawaiian leaders - fearful of losing the powerful tourism dollar - are proactively trying to make the island safer for unassuming guests. While some guidebooks entice tourists to remote and often dangerous spots, legislators and others are combating those travel suggestions with an army of lifeguards, safety videos, and barrage of lifesaving equipment.
Chief John Blaylock of the Kauai Fire Department said the best advice to all Hawaii newcomers: “The bottom is educate, educate, educate.”
Blaylock’s department had more than 100 emergency calls last year and spends the national average for a municipality of its size on safety efforts.
Historically, Hanakapi’ai on the North Shores also sees the highest number of people in distress.
Even before visitors touch ground, county leaders want to make sure that all newcomers to the beautiful islands know the dangers of visiting there. The Hawaii State Senate passed legislation earlier this year directing the Hawaii Tourism Authority to work with airlines and hotel on a safety video. The safety video would air on all flights flying into Hawaii. Although, it’s still unclear which airlines would actually participate.
Those flying into Kauai are already greeted by a six-minute ocean safety video featuring the Kauai Fire Department lifeguards. That video plays on loop on four separate monitors in the baggage claim area of the Lihue Airport.
And it’s not just officials who are getting in on the action. Local residents are also doing more to try to prevent the drownings. Monty Downs is an emergency room doctor at Wilcox Hospital and president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association. Downs and others from the Kauai Lifeguard Association have placed safety tubes at many of the popular tourist destinations that don’t have lifeguards.
“It’s a very rough ocean - rougher than California waters because we don't have a continental shelf. Our water goes from 18,000 feet deep five miles offshore, so there is no buffer to these swells that come in from thousands of miles away,” Downs said.
Volunteer Mark Hubbard also leads a group of local residents who’ve taken on the task of maintaining the steep and rocky Hanakapia’i segment of Kalalau Trail.
“There have been some deaths from people swept away. But for the most part, people will be stuck on the other side and the fire department will come and rescue them,” Hubbard said.
He and others are hoping to prevent what happened in February, when flash floods stranded 50 people in one day who had to be airlifted out. One woman from New York could not be saved and was swept out to sea.
But the deadliest location in the last decade has been Kipu falls, located near the South Side of Kauai. Five visitors died there from 2006 to 2011. In the interest of public safety, the landowner of the popular swimming hole decided to fence the area and put up trespassing signs.
Despite all these measures, lawmakers and emergency crews will venture out and not the heed the warnings.
“Fiscally, it would not be prudent for us to put lifeguards at every spot visitors are exploring,” said Blaylock. “I can’t have a babysitter at every site.”