HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Nature Always Wins (Part 1 of 3)


By Kelly Moran

Nature Always Wins [Part I]

In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins is trying to teach young Eliza Doolittle to say the “h” at the start of words, since Cockney folks like her tend to drop it (as in “’ow are you?” or “’ave a nice day”). So he gives her this sentence to practice: “In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.”


He might have added “Hawaii” to that list – meaning the Big Island of Hawaii, which had apparently never experienced a direct hit by a hurricane, at least not since haoles started keeping written records about 200 years ago.  But that changed last August, when a hurricane named “Iselle” slammed into the eastern corner of our diamond-shaped island.  The south- and east-facing flatlands of the Puna district took the biggest hit.  Iselle tore solar panels off roofs, and some roofs off houses; but the felling of trees – one kind of tree in particular – caused the most serious and widespread damage.

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During the 20th century, Puna was extensively planted with trees to replace ohia and other native species that had been logged off, and to make forests out of fields where sugar cane land had gone fallow.  Everyone – developers especially, who were subdividing land into house-lots – believed that people needed trees, both for shade and for giving or restoring a tropical look-and-feel to the place.  The tree-of-choice for this enterprise was albezia (Falcataria moluccana), from the islands of Southeast Asia.  It seemed ideal.  One of the fastest-growing trees in the world, albezia can reach 60 feet in just ten years; it produces a wide-spreading canopy that drops lots of seeds, and thereby extends its range without further human effort.


Unfortunately, albezia is trouble.  Those long branches are brittle, easily snapped away by strong winds; and sometimes, for no good reason, they just break off and fall.  Land in Puna is very young, geologically, so there isn’t much soil above the underlying lava; all trees there are shallow-rooted; so heavy, mature albezia are therefore extremely vulnerable to being toppled in a storm.  And that tendency to colonize new ground squeezes out other trees, and turns otherwise vacant lots into a forest of practically no other tree but itself.  Albezia definitely lives up to its nickname: “The Tree that Ate Puna.”

Albezia Tree
Albezia Tree


So, when Iselle struck on Thursday August 7, its 60-mph wet winds whipped down acre after acre of albezias.  Branches and trunks crashed into on houses, pulled down utility lines, and blocked even the widest roads, isolating pockets of neighborhoods, and cutting off electricity, telephone and cable-TV.  Many homes in Puna had catchment-tanks for rainwater, but unless they also had a generator, they had no way to pump that water through their faucets.  This was an emergency, the likes of which had not been seen anywhere in the state since hurricane Iniki devastated Kauai in 1992.

Iselle Tree Cleanup

Road crew workers clearing the main thoroughfares of the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Iselle in Pahoa, Hawaii, 08 August 2014.  [LA Times –]


And just two days later, on Saturday Aug. 9, Hawaii held its Primary Election.  With several thousand people unable to get to their polling-places, two precincts in Pun were closed, and a make-up election for those precincts was scheduled in the weeks ahead.  When those folks did finally vote, they did not alter the election-day results.  But the delay added to a general malaise – which admittedly had been growing for many years – that Puna is a backwater, about which the rest of the County and State care little.  But the fact remains that Puna is beautiful, verdant, and one of the most affordable places to live in Hawaii . . . if you don’t mind also being downrift of an active volcano!  (To Be Continued …. Read next, Part 2 of 3)

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