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1 Year After Hurricane Iniki, Kauai Puts Up a Good Front : Storm: Homes have been rebuilt and tourists are back. But the lives, security of many residents remain shattered.


PUHI, Hawaii — In the year since Hurricane Iniki pummeled Kauai, leaving a wasteland of battered hotels, smashed homes and naked tree stumps, the island has been transformed.

New homes with shiny roofs have replaced tattered, gaping shells. Delicate plumeria blossoms decorate the trees. Sunburned tourists loll in lava rock pools.

But the legacy of the storm lies deeper than Kauai's fresh, new face. Take Randy Canales, for example. The young auto mechanic, now rebuilding his home, faces more than physical repairs. The storm that ripped away his roof and flooded his home also cost him his marriage.

"Your lifestyle is just totally uprooted after a hurricane," he explained in a quiet moment. "It's like being put in a foreign land, not knowing what direction you're headed. All of a sudden, your everyday ritual isn't there. As a family, we had a hard time functioning. We couldn't read each other."

After months of camping in their battered, dusty home, Canales' wife moved out, leaving their three children. "I've heard of a lot of people getting separated and divorced," he mused. "I guess I'm just one of the casualties."

Packing 145-m.p.h. winds, Hawaii's worst storm in a century battered this rural island on Sept. 11, 1992, causing $1.6 billion in damage and claiming four lives. The roaring gale knocked out power and telephone service. Tourists fled as residents struggled for basics like water and shelter.

Today, the amenities of civilization are again the norm for most of Kauai's 50,000 people. But some residents fear for the future. The economy rests on shaky ground. Insurance squabbles and ownership changes have kept several major hotels shuttered--including the island's largest employer, the Westin Kauai at Kauai Lagoons. Only 3,300 of the island's 8,000 visitor rooms are open. Some small businesses have thrown in the towel.

Unemployment is running at 13%, and that figure doesn't include the many residents who used to work two or three jobs and now must get by with just one. For many laid-off workers, benefits expired last month. The infusion of insurance and construction money that has buoyed Kauai's economy is ebbing.

"I think we're in for a tough road," said Gary Baldwin, head of economic revitalization for the Kauai Economic Development Board. "All of a sudden, a reality check is going to come to people: no more money."

Two insurance companies, overwhelmed by Iniki losses, bailed out of the business, leaving homeowners in the lurch until the state stepped in. Housing, already tight before the hurricane, is a monumental problem, especially with swarms of newcomer construction workers crowding the market. Although life has returned to normal for many people, for others the anniversary of Iniki is simply a small stepping stone on the path to recovery.

"Right after the hurricane, we were all acting in a heroic way," said Ann Francis, head of Iniki Ohana (family) Project, a counseling group. "Everyone was helping each other. Now we have to go through the tough slog of putting the floor back, dealing with endless forms, all these monotonous, not-so-fun things. . . . People are in a real tender place, and really sensitive."

When Hurricane Fernanda threatened Hawaii last month, flashbacks and jangled nerves kept many people awake at night. Gas lines formed and shoppers snapped up supplies of batteries and candles.

In an effort to focus on the great strides already made, Kauai will mark the anniversary of the storm today with an all-day event, "Ola Ka'Uhane, Kauai" or "The spirit lives, Kauai." It will feature music, hula and hundreds of schoolchildren singing "Aloha to the World," in thanks for the help that has poured into Kauai from all parts of the globe.

"We want to acknowledge what we've accomplished as a community, to thank each other and give each other energy because it's not over yet," Mayor JoAnn Yukimura said. "Given the magnitude of the disaster, the fact that we've come so far is a real testimony to the strength and resilience of the community."

In fact, there are signs of hope on the tourism front, the linchpin of the economy. Those hotels that have reopened their doors are enjoying brisk business. The Hyatt Regency at Poipu boasts even better occupancy rates than before Iniki. Tourists venturing back to the island are delighting in bargains and uncrowded beaches.

Nothing at the graceful Hyatt tips visitors off to the nightmare storm of a year ago, after which guests had to fetch buckets of pool water to flush their toilets. Marble glistens in the lobby. Couples swing in hammocks strung from coconut palms.

"I don't think we could have picked a better place," said Gary Mavis of Redwood City, Calif., as he and his girlfriend emerged grinning from a Hyatt lagoon.

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