HJ/EDApril 3, 2006

Trouble, terror, and torrential rain: the Ericksons' anniversary trip

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Instead of finding luaus, hula girls and rainbows, Dorene and Gordy Erickson of Cokato found a good excuse to go to Hawaii a second time.

“It’s just given us a really good reason to go back,” said Dorene Erickson.

They were expecting to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary with a cruise and tour under sunny skies and waving palm trees. Their trip, however, turned into terror and torrential rains. Seven people from the island of Kauai drowned in the flood and their bodies are believed to have washed into the sea, Erickson said after the couple returned home March 19.

The couple flew to Honolulu on March 9 and visited Pearl Harbor and the beaches of Waikiki. Then a couple of days later the Ericksons boarded a Norwegian Cruise line ship to visit the islands of Maui, Hawaii and Kauai, Erickson said.

The first leg of the cruise was best. They went whale watching. “We saw so many of them,” Erickson said.

The whales were about ready to migrate back to their home waters off the coast of Alaska. “They’re just so immense. It was just fascinating to see,” she said.

The Pacific Whale Foundation experts on the cruise told them some of the whales had tails 24 feet wide and lungs as big as Volkswagons, Erickson said.

When they arrived at “the big island,” Hawaii, their helicopter ride was canceled because of rain. This was the first sign that the weather wasn’t going to be good. The Ericksons weren’t worried, though.

Erickson, an interior painter, also saw her first rainbow there in the Rainbow State. She prepared to take a photo of it, but was told not to bother, she would see a multitude of rainbows later. That turned out to be the only one she saw, though, Erickson said.

The cruise continued to Kauai where they intended to rent a red convertible, go to the beaches and enjoy a luau.

The Ericksons’ daughters, Dori and Mandy, telephoned them, and mentioned that on TV, they had heard seven people drowned when a dam broke on Kauai because of heavy rain. So the Ericksons knew there were problems, but weren’t specifically warned, she said.

All the Hawaiian islands are mountainous. Whenever it rains, the water cascades down the sides. Kauai is especially rainy, “the rainiest place on earth,” Erickson said.

It rains one inch a day, every day, 365 days a year, on average in the center of the island, she said.

Some places on the Kauai coast receive only 10 inches of rain a year, however.

But for the three weeks preceding their trip, plus the week the Ericksons were in Hawaii, it rained 26 inches. Usually Kauai gets its rain in a five-minute shower and then the sun comes out. “They’re not used to deluges of rain they get for days and days,” Erickson said. “This was very unusual.”

The cruise ship docked at Lihue, a town about the size of Hutchinson. The Ericksons wanted to rent a car and drive to a fern grotto along a river in the rain forest in the center of the island. “It’s supposed to be spectacular,” she said.

They also wanted to see Waimea Canyon, which is similar to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. When they got to the rental agency in the pouring, soaking rain they noticed few people there. “Where are you going?” one of the workers asked them. “We have mud slides everywhere.”

The rental agency employees were blocked from getting to work by huge mounds of mud on the roads. There are no alternate routes, so if a mud slide piles up behind a vehicle, the occupants won’t be able to return to Lihue, he told them.

They also were told the mud slides were worse in the center, northern and eastern parts of the island, so the Ericksons changed their plans again. They decided to go along the south side of the island and see beautiful Eucalyptus trees arching over the road that they had heard about, Erickson said.

“The rain got heavier and heavier,” she said.

The Ericksons drove about 15 miles along a narrow road with a canopy of vegetation above it. They started seeing sections of road where mud had been cleared away. “Maybe this is not going to work,” Erickson said she thought to herself.

Her husband, Gordy, a meter reader for CenterPoint Energy, drove very slowly and was extremely tense, she said. “We didn’t dare go down any steep inclines,” she said.

Finally they saw flashing lights from the road crew’s equipment trying to remove another mud slide. Traffic was reduced to one lane.

Erickson pointed to the map showing where the couple decided to turn around. They doubted the captain of the cruise liner would bring the ship to them and pick them up at Kalaheo, she said.

They had difficulty finding a place to turn around because the road was so narrow and winding. Finally they were heading back to Lihue, but the worst was yet to come.

As they crept back the way they came in continuously torrential rains, the radio announcer warned residents to stay home, stay off the roads, urged visitors get off the roads, be careful, drive safely...”Please, people, stay off the road,” the reporter announced ominously.

“We wished that someone would have warned us before,” Erickson said.

They finally made it back to Lihue and the ship. The next day, they tried to tour the town, but this time, the captain announced that because of street flooding all should return to the ship. This was the first real warning about trouble they received from the ship, she said.

“The boat was probably the best place to be. The best view was from the deck of the ship,” Erickson said.

The luau was canceled, of course.

The cruise ship continued around the island to the Napali Coast and the sun came out. “It’s just breathtakingly beautiful,” she said.

Waterfalls gushed over the edges of the cliffs and tumbled into the ocean.

The Ericksons returned to Cokato but weren’t completely disappointed. They are thankful it was only part of a vacation that was lost, not their lives or livelihood, she said.

The Coast Guard searched for the bodies of those that drowned and were swept out to sea. They never found them, Erickson added

She talked to Diane Swendra of Cokato, whose son went to Hawaii immediately after the Ericksons returned. “The water has run into the ocean now,” Erickson was told. “That is our impeccable timing,” she laughed.

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