Hana Highway on Maui closed after rockfall

·5 min read

May 20—For residents who regularly travel on these winding, cliff-hugging roads, it not only can be dangerous but cause periods of tiresome inconvenience if a section is impassable for an extended time.

The recent rockfall and closure of the Hana Highway near Kipahulu serves as a reminder of the price one pays for living on the ruggedly beautiful and rural east side of Maui.

For residents who regularly travel on these winding, cliff-hugging roads, it not only can be dangerous but cause periods of tiresome inconvenience if a section is impassable for an extended time.

"You become accustomed to it, " said Rozitta Ho'opai, school administrative services assistant at Hana High and Elementary School. "It's part of living here, a lifestyle. We chose to live here. You can make it a burden if you make it a burden."

Recent excessive rain apparently made traveling on one dicey section of the road near Kipahulu—between Alelele Bridge and Lelekea Bridge—even more dicier than usual.

A large rockfall on April 27 left the road littered with boulders and rocks of all sizes. No one was hurt, and county crews eventually cleared the road.

But on May 4, more falling debris battered a car. The driver wasn't hurt, but the vehicle's windshield was smashed in and the car suffered extensive damage.

Following an engineering assessment that deemed that section unsafe due to rockfall hazard, the county closed that section of the road.

But work to stabilize the cliffside will take weeks, officials said. County officials estimate it will take two weeks to secure a contractor due to the scope of the project and the amount of personnel required.

Once the work begins, rock scaling—the removal of loose or potentially unstable rocks on the slopes—will occur over another two weeks, officials estimated.

The closure is on what is considered the backside of the Hana Highway—just before it turns into the Piilani Highway—and does not affect the popular north shore route between Kahului and Hana.

But anyone wanting to travel between Hana and Kaupo are for now out of luck.

Kamalei Pico of Kipahulu has mixed emotions about the project. While she knows the road is dangerous and is glad this section is getting some attention, she feels for those who need to drive that way for work or for other needs.

One of them is her fiance, Pekelo Lind, who commutes daily from Kipahulu to his agricultural job in Kula in Upcountry Maui. Normally it takes him an hour and 15 minutes to arrive at work. With the road closed, the duration of his commute can double.

Pico, who is executive director of the Kipahulu 'Ohana nonprofit, said that section of Hana Highway has been a danger to motorists for a long time. The road curves around a seaside cliff, narrows to one lane and offers blind corners where signs tell you to honk your horn.

"If we see pebbles falling, we feel like we need to gas it through there before the rocks fall, " she said. "It's funny that the county only now is taking action—because for years it has been dangerous."

"(Lind ) takes a risk everyday driving on that road."

This is the same area in 2004 where Haleakala National Park ranger Suzanne Roberts stopped to remove rocks that had fallen on the highway. Park boundaries extend from the top of the mountain to the sea in this area.

As the Illinois native was doing her work, she was struck on the head by a three-foot boulder and killed.

Former state Rep. Linda Clark said it's always nerve-wracking to drive some of the scarier parts of the 18-mile road from Kaupo to Hana.

"Sometimes I'm thinking, 'Is this the day the road fails or rocks fall ?'" she said. "I see tour buses go around that way and I'm like, 'You're crazy."

Last year Clark introduced a resolution in the state Legislature encouraging officials to work with the community to develop a holistic management plan to ensure Hana Highway is properly maintained and is safe for residents and visitors.

With all the rain the area has seen in the past year, the road is more susceptible to washouts and landslides, Clark said.

"I'm very relieved they're working on this, " she said.

But with the relief comes the pain. Clark, former president the Kaupo Community Association, said the closure has got to be hurting financially some Kaupo residents who work in Hana.

What's more, Kaupo's population of about 50 to 70 people, gets its mail from the Hana Post Office. Clark said she hasn't received any mail since the closure.

Some residents have been urging the county to minimize the inconvenience by setting aside time in the morning and evening to allow motorists to drive through the closed section.

Clark said she can't see the county allowing this.

"How can you say the rocks are not going to fall during those times ?" she said.

Also affected by the road closure are three public school students who live in Kaupo and attend Hana High and Elementary School.

Ho'opai, the school administrative services assistant, said the impact of the road closure on students isn't quite as bad as it used be.

Thanks to extra funding tied to the COVID-19 epidemic, each of Hana's 385 students now has their own Chromebook laptop to connect with teachers and homework.

"Fortunately, there's only two weeks of school left, " Ho'opai said.

Dawn Lono, executive assistant to East Maui County Council member Shane Sinenci, said the Kipahulu road closure does create some inconvenience for those who live in Hana.

A lot of tourists drive the full circle around East Maui, starting on the traditional two-lane road to Hana on the north coast and leaving the area through Kaupo on the south coast. Now, Lono said, they are turning around at Kipahulu and creating more traffic congestion in town and on the more heavily used north route to Central Maui.

The folks at the Hotel Hana-Maui have a different problem.

A spokesperson for the resort said it has been receiving cancellations and worried phone calls from travelers thinking that the road to Hana is closed and they will be unable to drive from the Kahului Airport to Hana-Maui Resort.