Hurricane Iniki: Look at All Those Chickens

(Blog title reference)

By Jenna Lawson, Jonathan Kalman, Aidan Koch, Madi Bussmann, Clio Lieberman, & Cameron Rustay

In Hawaiian, the word “Iniki” has a somewhat contradictory meaning. Some categorize it on a surface level as meaning “strong and piercing wind.” However, a deeper look into Hawaiian language dictionaries turns up the definition “to pinch, nip; sharp and piercing, as wind or pangs of love.” Likening piercing winds to the pangs of love presents an interesting dilemma about how to reckon with Iniki’s legacy and perception among those who experienced it. The fact that there was an upsurge in babies given this name in the wake of the hurricane further entangles the presence of love and joy with the destruction inherent when a hurricane makes landfall.

On a more somber note, however, according to the Department of Commerce, Hurricane Iniki was described as, “a small but intense tropical cyclone.” Hurricane Iniki hit Hawaii on September 11, 1992, and was a Category 4 hurricane that formed “in the central Pacific, about 600 miles southeast of the Hawaiian Islands,” and moved “west [and] northwest up” through the islands. Iniki “took an abrupt turn to the north, as it began to react to the effect of a strong zone of low pressure, several hundred miles west of the islands,” and “[t]he low-pressure zone — an area of strong winds moving from the south at 20,000 to 30,000 feet above the islands,… ‘was to catch this hurricane and send it north’ — directly at the islands.” Here’s a link to a photo of the path of the hurricane (scroll down to view image).

Iniki “was the most destructive hurricane to strike Hawaii in the 20th century.” The department also tells us that, “In its wake, Iniki left a path of destruction expected to approach 1.8 billion dollars. In actual dollar value, this would make Iniki the sixth costliest hurricane in United States history.” Additionally, all of this destruction remained isolated within the Hawaiian Islands, seeing little influence in other regions. Other than Kauai, the other major islands of the archipelago, such as Maui and Oahu, did not suffer any major damage, as they experienced higher than average rainfall and stronger winds, but not to the extent that was felt on Kauai. The department goes on to claim, “[e]very island in the state suffered to a greater or lesser extent from the heavy and destructive surf and from strong damaging winds brought by Iniki.”

As with other recent hurricanes, however, the island of Kauai took the brunt. According to the New York Times, “Kauai, near the western end of the Hawaiian island chain, took most of the brunt of Hurricane Iniki (pronounced ee-NEE-key), which registered as a category 4 storm, one of the ‘catastrophic’ category 5.” The damage here was widespread, with only the western sections of the island being spared from the most severe devastation.” Despite the high costs in damages, the costs in lives is surprisingly low. The Department of Commerce tells us that only, “[six] persons died from injuries associated with I&i while about 100 were injured.” It is still tragic that any lives were lost in the face of this disaster, however, given the power of the storm, the outcome could have been much worse.

The communication during the hurricane was not as streamlined as it could have been. During the course of the hurricane, “while Kauai was taking a terrible battering, the hurricane warning for Oahu was downgraded to a tropical storm watch,” and the “only communications to the island came through amateur radio transmissions.” These amateur radio operators gave directions and suggestions to the government when Iniki hit, since there was no other communication between Hawaii and the mainland. The lack of effective communication between Hawaii and the continental U.S. aided in the collective process of forgetting those who already tend to be forgotten or reduced.

Kauai sustained considerable damage to its electrical, water, and communication infrastructure, so much so, in fact, that power, water, and telephone lines took 90-180 days to be restored to the majority of Kauai’s population. Economically this then devastated the island as many of the hotels, tours, and other tourist-based industries, the principal source of nearly 75% of the jobs on the island, were damaged extensively, with only the Hilton hotel being left in a functional state. FEMA attempted to aid in the recovery, but, as seems to be the norm, the organization was incapable of providing timely aid to the people and businesses of Kauai. In response to this massive spike in unemployment, many people found themselves without a steady source of income, so, when reconstruction efforts began about six weeks later, many able-bodied men and women took on jobs in the construction sites.

However, this costruction was not limited to that of buildings, as artistic expression and commemorative media came from this storm, which caused damages upwards of $3.1 billion dollars. The popular blockbuster Jurassic Park literally weathered this storm in the final days of the movie’s filming, thus conscripting the film into the role of “hurricane art,” however unintentionally. As this blog post takes you through the narrative of Hurricane Iniki, we beg you to keep in mind that we are limited by space, time, and the knowledge that some survivor’s narratives are promoted above others due to factors like race, money, and political power.

“Only six people died.” We found ourselves trapped in the trivialization of human life through that instinctual evaluation of the loss of human life during Hurricane Iniki. In the wake of looking at Hurricane Katrina where casualties were significantly higher, it felt like an opinion we were completely unqualified to have. First, we can list the facts before deconstructing their meaning. While it’s true that six people lost their lives, a comparatively low number for a storm, over 1,000 people were injured and 1,500 homes were destroyed; all of Kauai’s residents suffered some kind of property loss and one-third were left homeless. According to this Washington Post article, property damage clocked in at about $1.8 billion and overall damage reached $3.1 billion.

Insurance companies went bankrupt from $300 million in claims and the state had to assume them, many times leaving people’s livelihood at the mercy of the government; in the context of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, this is a scary thought. While it’s important to not trivialize human life, it’s also necessary to not trivialize the unbearable burdens this storm placed upon people and the island’s ability to function. Keeping this in mind, the destruction of property is significant in the context of Kauai’s economic drivers. The island depends on tourism as a major industry and with the widespread property destruction, this left the island unable to prosper for years after the storm. Without buildings to house tourists, tourism suffers as does the island’s income, ability to sustain itself, and therefore, its autonomy.  This is seen in the fact that just five years after the storm, an island that was once referred to as the “garden-isle” turned into a “paved-paradise” where the largest employer was the government, not local businesses.

Another unusual and unforeseen effect of Hurricane Iniki on the environment is the explosion of feral chickens that emerged in the years after the storm. According to locals, Iniki destroyed chicken coops en masse, resulting in a large crossbreeding of the Red Junglefowl, which were brought in during Polynesian migration over 7,000 years ago, and common domestic chickens imported from the continental United States. This impact is reflected in art and local lore that identify these hybrid descendants as walking memorials to Iniki’s influence on the landscape. While treated more as an oddity than an environmental harm, residents jokingly claim that these chickens are the “real, official bird” of Kauai.

The consensus is still out as to whether this overcrowding of chickens, who thrive because they have no natural predators on the island, is a burden or a blessing. We posit our course’s catchphrase: both/and. Local vendors sell t-shirts featuring the birds in droves to tourists, who love to take pictures of them. On the other hand, the noise pollution from these birds’ crowing that comes at all hours is said to keep the inhabitants of the island up at all hours. Additionally, because many of the Red Junglefowl were being conditioned for cock fighting tournaments, some of the birds are incredibly aggressive to other chickens and people, including young children.

Of course, it would be naive to exclude art in the wake all the effects previously mentioned. Searching for art created in the aftermath of Hurricane Iniki proved challenging, making us question our initial understanding of what “counts” as art. As a group, we concluded that art could be anything made with the intention of evoking emotion, which is why it was uncomfortable to think of Jean Hall’s chicken prints or a news report from Hawaii News Now as art. As an artist from Massachusetts, Hall’s distance from Hawaii seems to add a unethical flair to her prints, as if she’s profiteering off the overcrowding of chickens in Kauai, and by extension, profiteering off the tragedy of Iniki itself. Additionally, news reports tend to be detached somehow, depicting less aestheticized images compared to the ones generated in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. However, it turns out art and artists reacted and were affected in some unexpected ways. According to starbulletin.com, the local Blockbuster’s rentals skyrocketed post-Iniki in response to the widespread craving for community and entertainment– a possible example of communal catharsis. Moreover, several bands responded to Hurricane Iniki by playing all over Kauai for free, the Honolulu Symphony included, as an effort to destress and bring people together.

So why does this matter? Why does a Hawaiian hurricane from 26 years ago matter to ourselves in upstate New York? In a way, the storm functions as a harbinger, a warning, of the inability of the government to provide aid to its people in the wake of a hurricane. As FEMA provided slow and inconsistent federal relief and communication efforts were helmed by amateur radio enthusiasts, it became readily apparent that the federal government was woefully unprepared to deal with the devastation of a hurricane. This unpreparedness then exploded when Hurricane Katrina arrived in the Gulf of Mexico 13 year later, proving to the American public that the government lacked any protocols to deal with the destruction that a category 4 or 5 hurricane could have on a major American city

However, people of the cities affected by these hurricanes do not let themselves be stopped by these disasters, as evidenced by Iniki’s affect on public policy by influencing some government officials and residents to lobby for maintaining the hurricane preparedness fund. It brought Kauai into mainstream attention, however briefly. Iniki has also been used as a rhetorical strategy by both government and media outlets to “unify” residents through commemorative news pieces and events. We’ve found through this process that government officials love to co-opt natural disaster weather events as an opportunity to speak to the “resilience” of their people. It’s a unique brand of post-disaster patriotism that appeals to many.

Iniki also demonstrates how visibility impacts public memory. Hawaii, separated from the continental United States, was in many ways out of sight and out of mind. It’s main draw for non-residents was its value as a vacation destination. When Iniki took that picturesque stability away, its use to outsiders was decimated. Communications during and directly after the storm were extremely limited, preventing victims’ needs and stories from being projected to a wider American audience. Through our post, we sought to prove how all of the facets of this assignment become complicated and intertwined when we move from theoretical considerations to a community’s lived experiences, as well as retroactively hold the agencies charged with helping Kauai accountable for their failures. Our hope is that the destruction of Iniki will not be swept under the proverbial rug in favor of higher visibility natural disasters.

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