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The Comeback Island : After Hurricane Iniki, the rebuilding is far from done. But a major Poipu resort has reopened, restaurants are serving and the landscape grows lush again.

April 18, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

OIPU, Kauai — We've heard plenty from Iniki: the scream of 150-m.p.h. winds when the hurricane blew through last September, the groan of roofs being separated from buildings, the splintering of trees. Now listen for a moment to Sara-Lei Pai.

Pai, a 25-year-old worker at the Hyatt Regency Kauai, is one among thousands who have labored half a year to rebuild a storm-hobbled, tourism-dependent island.

"It's ready," she told me when I visited Kauai several days ago. "There are enough restaurants open and activities companies. Most of the beaches are OK, and a lot of the hotels have good rates."

Then she excused herself. It was 7 a.m., and though she usually works in food service, she had a high-priority landscaping assignment ahead. This was just her hotel's fourth day back in business.

Invitations like hers abound on Kauai these days, offered by residents and tourism officials with a frequent underlying trace of anxiety.

Since Sept. 12, 1992, when the islanders awoke to an estimated $1.6 billion in damages and a quarter of the island's workers found themselves jobless, Kauai has been struggling to restore itself and the industry that sustains it.

" Please , tell them to come back," one hotel worker pleaded when I called to check availability of rooms.

Monthly arrivals, which routinely surpassed 100,000 before Iniki, in October shriveled to 18,200. As recently as February of this year, the number was still down around 31,000, and would have been smaller but for the repeated returns of construction crews. Starting May 1, United Airlines is suspending its three flights a week to the island. An airline spokesman noted that two-thirds of the planes' seats were going unfilled. A resumption is expected when demand increases substantially. Here's an uncomfortable irony of tourism as a territory's dominant industry: What many islanders desperately want is for us to come, lie around in sunscreen and order tropical cocktails while the locals confront some of the hardest work of their lives.

"We need that for this place to be normal," said Roberta Wallace, co-owner of still-closed Gaylord's Restaurant outside Lihue, the county seat.

"It's not like we'd feel bad if they did that," said Pai. "We want and need their business."

So far, however, they can only handle so much of it. Six months after Iniki, there are still two rooms unrentable for every one available on the island. It may be 1994 before several luxury hotels reopen. Many of the island's county and state campsites--some damaged, some housing dispossessed locals--are unavailable for overnight use. In downtown Lihue, the sign over the marquee of the old theater leans wind-mangled and useless. On the island's south rim, near Poipu Beach, leak-wary homeowners have swathed their battered houses in blue tarpaulins.

But other airlines offer plenty of flights, many buildings show no sign of the trouble they've endured, and Mother Nature's recovery is running well ahead of humankind's: The beaches and greenery are in generally good shape.

"The island itself is just remarkable in its recuperative powers," said helicopter tour pilot Will Squyres, who has been hovering over Kauai, on and off, since the mid-1970s. "The problem now is hotel rooms. Places to stay in are hard to come by."

The bottom line: If you can land satisfactory hotel and rental car reservations ahead of time, there's no good reason to stay away from Kauai. You can sun, swim, dine, survey lush green mountains and valleys, and watch a largely uncrowded island as it heals itself.

THE LANDSCAPE

Some beachfront facilities remain damaged, but the sand is plentiful in many areas. At Poipu on the island's south coast, for example, Shipwreck Beach (near the Hyatt) is said to have gained 30 feet of shorefront sand since the storm. While most beaches were clean of debris, neighboring streets in Poipu were unpredictable: neat condominiums to one side of the street; to the other, a thrashed roofless house with lizards lounging in the living room.

Waimea Canyon, often billed as Kauai's Grand Canyon, is the same deep declivity of red earth and green growth that it was before Hurricane Iniki. On the north shore, the high green cliffs of the Na Pali Coast still look as they did 20 years ago, when they stood in for Skull Island on the last remake of "King Kong." Circling the island in a helicopter, you do see here and there the white corpses of uprooted trees. But some of those, longtime islanders say, actually date back a decade to 1983's Hurricane Iwa, and soon will be covered again with undergrowth.

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