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He's All Wet and Glad of It

Albert Spencer lives near one of the rainiest spots on Earth. It's a life of muck and checking gutters -- but then there's the lush garden.

April 20, 2006|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

WAILUA, Hawaii — In the place where Albert Spencer lives, it is a waste of time to measure rainfall by the inch. From January through March, a total of 6 feet of water has poured onto his parcel in paradise.

The rain falls in continuous misty sheets with occasional squalls as though someone had turned on a giant faucet. The air thickens with moisture. Palm leaves drip and dribble. Earth turns sloppy, and walking outdoors gets noisy: "It's squish-squish-squish," Spencer says. Or slosh-slosh-slosh or glop-glop-glop. Glopping is the worst because it means muck.

These are the routine sounds of life.

Spencer, 61, an accounting teacher, hears about rainy cities on the mainland. San Francisco made headlines after 8 inches of rain in March. That much precipitation can fall here in a single day -- before breakfast. Seattle's annual average of 36 inches could come over a single long weekend, and in these parts nobody would notice.

Yet the place where Spencer lives in upper Wailua, on the windward side of Kauai, can seem like a desert compared with another spot just a few miles west: the summit of Mt. Waialeale, in the center of the island.

For every foot of rain in Wailua, the mountain gets 4 or 5 feet. In March alone, Mt. Waialeale received nearly 8 feet of rain. The summit averages more than 45 feet a year, according to the National Weather Service. In 1982, it was deluged with a record 620 inches -- almost 52 feet.

From his backyard, Spencer, the mountain's closest neighbor, has an unobstructed view of what tourist pamphlets proclaim and many scientists confirm as the rainiest place on Earth. The title is disputed. But scientists agree that Mt. Waialeale is a perennial contender for the top spot.

During downpours, the cliffs below the summit spout waterfalls, which from a distance look like a string of long white ribbons fluttering in the wind. Waialeale (pronounced Why-ah-lay-AH-lay) is Hawaiian for "rippling waters."

No one lives on the mountain. It is an extinct volcano that rises 5,148 feet, its summit a blade-like ridge that spends most of the year behind clouds. A few intrepid souls have scaled the peak, but most are daunted by the swampy biomass of tangled fern and vine and moss that has been known to swallow the occasional hiker like green quicksand.

The mountain sits at the heart of a forest reserve. The nearest homes lie along the Wailua River, about five miles from the summit. The Wailua Homesteads, made up of about 80 half-acre lots, looks and feels like a subdivision plopped down in the middle of a rain forest.

Spencer and his wife live in the northwestern-most corner, in the last cul-de-sac, the last lot, the last house. They live closer than anyone to the mountain.

"Yes, I guess we do," Spencer says casually.

When you've lived for nearly three decades next to the world's ultimate wet spot, you gradually move away from awe and spend time on more practical matters, such as keeping water out of your house.

Rivulets can quickly turn into rivers. One such river often skirts their house and runs between two banana groves in their front yard before spilling onto the driveway. During dry times, Spencer fixes cracks on the roof and checks the vapor barriers under his floors. More than most human beings on the globe, he keeps a vigilant watch on the state of his gutters.

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On a recent Sunday afternoon, Spencer washes his car in the driveway. He is tall and lanky with thinning gray hair and shaggy eyebrows that curl toward his eyes like shades. It rained earlier in the day, and it's sprinkling now. Living here means being oblivious to low levels of wetness.

It also helps during the rinse phase.

Spencer says he wants the car clean before his wife, Betty, comes home from the mainland tomorrow afternoon. She's been visiting relatives. Behind him, shrouded by foliage, sits a gray and white 2,100-square-foot rambler that he and Betty designed and built by hand. It took them five years.

They pounded every nail, caulked every seam. They put in lots of vents and windows for good airflow to prevent mold and mildew. Most important, they made sure the land was graded so that rain flowed away from the house and not -- as in the case of a few unfortunate neighbors -- toward it.

Originally from New Jersey, Albert Spencer first came to Hawaii in the early 1970s while in the Air Force. Soon after, he and Betty, an elementary school teacher, moved to Kauai and bought their Wailua property for $40,000. They liked the spot because it was cooler and lusher than the coastal areas.

"We knew it was wet. We didn't how wet," Spencer says, soaping up the hood and windshield of his not-so-new Ford Taurus. This year was wetter than any in his memory.

Kauai, the state's northernmost island, was under a continual downpour for more than 40 days starting in mid-February and lasting through March. Sporadic rains have continued through April. Precipitation records were broken all over the island, and floods and mudslides have ruined entire neighborhoods.

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