Cordova Prepared: Lessons learned from a storm

After three days in survival mode came a rescue via helicopter

The kids evacuate the flood in Haena, Kauai, aboard a Black Hawk helicopter. Photo by Joanie Behrends/for The Cordova Times

Flash flood warning!

It was April 14 and we, the Behrends family, were on the north shore of Kauai, Hawaii. In the eye of the storm.

That warning was the first clue of what was to come.

The backyard view from the vacation home on “stilts”…as the water began to rise. Shortly after this photo, waters flooded the little house shown in the back yard.
Photo by Joanie Behrends/for The Cordova Times

Lesson one:

Educate yourselves when you travel. Know whether the area you are entering is high or low elevation. We did not realize that our vacation home was in such a low spot. But when it started to rain harder than we could even believe, we decided to get out of the valley before the Hanalei Bridge might close. The kids were supposed to fly out the next day. And we had our lovely, pregnant daughter-in-law, Kristen, with us.

As we tried to drive out of the lowlands, I scanned the area and watched for escape options, should the waters begin to rise quickly. We were already driving through uncomfortably long stretches of water. At the first major water crossing I disembarked from the car to assess the integrity of the road that we could not see, to be sure it was still there.

We drove through an area where two rivers dumped into the ocean. Visibility was poor and we all craned to see what was ahead. It felt much better as we began to climb the opposite hill to safety. But suddenly, at a corner next to a watershed, the traffic stopped. Entirely.

Landslide just four cars in front of us. Now we were parked on a steep hillside, with water careening across the road and the pebbles washing in front of (and under) the car quickly turned to rocks. We were informed that we could wait it out; they thought it would be cleared in an hour or so.

We turned around, immediately.

Lesson two:

Make a decision, as best you can in a timely manner, and error on the side of safety. The drive back was harrowing. It became more difficult to see and the water had risen significantly. Each time our son, Brian, and my husband, Bob, drove their cars through the water, glaring red car battery lights popped on.

Coming back to that first big water across the road, we were confronted with a shocking view, a white pickup, end sticking straight up and entire nose completely submerged in the water. The driver could not determine where the road was and drove off the edge into a deep ditch.

We were in small rental vehicles, but we successfully navigated back to the vacation home, which was (thankfully) on “stilts,” about 15- to 20-feet up in the air. The entire road and driveway was under water, too deep to safely park the cars there. We parked them on the side of the road instead, assuming that would be adequate. Wrong.

The rain never let up. It became the most significant rainfall ever recorded on Kauai, 27 inches in 24 hours, putting the rainfall put our little Alaskan community to shame.

As darkness encroached, we wondered if we might drive out in the morning (and get the kids to the airport), but the water level at the Hanalei Bridge was rising dangerously close to the 6-foot limit. We monitored it carefully on the internet. It reached 6 feet 2 inches, but the bridge was still open. Good. Five feet, 10 inches. Relief! It’s going down! Then all of a sudden it was 14 feet.

The lightning and thunder raged outside. Darkness fell.

We moved the cars to even higher ground. The roof began to leak in numerous places, while our tap water abruptly ceased flowing.

Lesson three:

Think of the worst-case scenario and make a plan. My worst case imagined scenario was if the little house behind us lifted off its foundation and smashed into our lovely “stilts” and we ended up in the water, engulfed in darkness. It didn’t happen to us, but it happened many times that night, in the scary darkness, to others around us. The little house filled up with water but stayed put.

Three hours after we all went to bed, we checked the water level again. It had gone up another 8-plus-inches in the darkness. And the storm was absolutely raging.

Kristen prayed in her bed. Bob monitored the water levels. Brian counted lightning, an average of one every three seconds. Our daughter Erika and her partner, Peter Schlosser, rested fitfully. And I conjured up plans.

Morning came, and damage was revealed. We were fine, but much of the island, unknown to us at the time, had been devastated. There were 12 massive landslides between our family and safety. One slide had removed the road. The entire mountainside simply slid away. Lower in elevation, houses were floating in the ocean. And people were clinging to their roofs, as their houses toppled and moved. And cats were crying, caught in the trees. And one person, who got in his car that night and tried to leave, was unaccounted for.

In our house, there was still no running water, and we would be there for a while.

So, the long day began. All we did, all day long, was prepare for the worst.

Brian Behrends and Peter Schlosser invent a way to gather rain water as it pours off the roof, from a gutter to an umbrella to a garbage can. Later improved with a “filter”, an old shirt.
Photo by Joanie Behrends/for The Cordova Times

Lesson four:

Utilize everyone’s individual talents.

OPERATIONS: Brian and Peter rigged the water catchment system from the roof gutters and collected more than 80 gallons of filtered water, using Brian’s shirt as a filter. Erika boiled the water and stored it. She created a special separate water table for Kristen, with water that had come from the tap before the water ceased flowing. She also inventoried all medical supplies and created a supply table, which also included all flashlights and candles.

She created a basket of written ideas, from which we could choose a piece of paper, to generate laughter, lower stress and pass the time whenever we might need it.

PLANNING: Kristen monitored all websites and updates and created/maintained a current situation update. That constant knowledge also quenched our deep curiosity about what was happening all around us. Lastly, she generated the “WHAT TO DO” list, should the situation worsen, and we needed to know what to do quickly.

LOGISTICS: Bob gathered all the extra supplies we might need for any contingency. He placed boogie boards where we could access them for a swim, should it be necessary. He gathered supplies from the neighbor. He also did any telephone calls that were necessary, one of which was critical.

Erika and Brian Behrends strap themselves in for evacuation aboard the Black Hawk helicopter.
Photo by Peter Schlosser/for The Cordova Times

Lesson five:

If possible, be sure to let the authorities know that you might eventually need help. Bob called dispatch to let them know we were tourists with very limited resources and no water and a pregnant daughter-in-law. That decision ended up being critical for us. The Kauai authorities knew we were there and checked in with us daily.

I did my normal thing, thinking of all the things we should be doing, including a food rationing plan.

Lesson six:

Be kind to one another during a disaster. Everyone processes it differently. In our case, no one felt panic. No one was overwhelmed. And we were not there long enough to make it critical. We were only in survival mode for three days. Others had it much worse.

When that National Guard Black Hawk helicopter slowly flew over our house, circled and flew over our house a second time, and then landed in the nearby field, for the first time, I felt overwhelmed. It was almost over, and we were all well.

Bob Behrends, last in line, boards the National Guard Chinook helicopter, and evacuates to safety, a few hours after the kids leave in the Black Hawk.
Photo by Joanie Behrends/for The Cordova Times