Coco Palms 20 Years After Hurricane Iniki
Today, a country remembers what happened 11 years ago in New York City. On a small island in the middle of the Pacific, we remember September 11, as well. For two disasters. One human. One natural.
September 11, 2012 marks the 20th anniversary that Hurricane Iniki made landfall on Kauai, clocking 145 mph winds and gusts topping 230 mph. According to yesterday's article in The Garden Island, six fatalies were blamed on Iniki. Damages totaled more than $1.8 billion, including the loss of 1,400 homes and severe damage to 5,000 more.
I didn't live here twenty years ago, but I visited six months later, and I remember piles of trash as big around and tall as two-story houses that were sorted like laundry. Mattresses in this pile. Refrigerators in that one. I remember Kalihiwai Valley void of vegetation, trees stripped of every leaf and twig possible. I remember homes missing roofs; others repaired with blue tarps. I remember businesses shuttered; closed, I was told because of no insurance or insurance monies run dry.
Eric and I did manage to find a few re-opened restaurants, according to my notes from that visit, including Wake Up Cafe in Hanalei; The Bull Shed in Kapaa; Casa D'Amici, then located in Kilauea; A Pacific Cafe in Kapaa, now closed; Restaurant Kintari in Wailua; Si Cisco in Kukui Grove, long gone; and Zelo's Cafe, then located in Princeville.
Many businesses rebounded in the wake of Iniki, especially those that were successful pre-Iniki.
The Coco Palm Lodge was first built in 1950 by Alfred and Eleanor Hills in Wailua, on a stretch of property bordered by a sacred river, beach and ocean. In 1953, Lyle Guslander leased the hotel, eventually buying it for $150,000 and expanding its size from 24 rooms to over 400 by the 1970s. The place was famous. “The most famous hotel in the South Pacific,” claims Bob Jasper.
Now, some might beg to differ, like the Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider on Waikiki Beach. But the truth is the place has a storied past. Esther Williams filmed Pagan Love Song on the property. Roger Corman filmed She Gods of Shark Reef. Elvis visited frequently, helping bus dishes and singing backup for local entertainer Larry Rivera. Frank Sinatra was staying at Coco Palms when Ava Gardner left him. Bing Crosby checked in here. Owner and manager Grace Guslander was preparing for a visit by President John F. Kennedy when the first family canceled at the last minute because John-John burned himself in an imu pit on Oahu. Over the years, Grace herself became a celebrity. She started Kauai's wedding business, organizing over 500 weddings on the lagoon a year, a la Elvis' own wedding in Blue Hawaii. At least, these are the stories told by Bob Jasper during his two-hour tour of Coco Palms, starting weekdays at 2:00 p.m., as he guides people through the coconut grove, into Elvis’ favorite bungalow--complete with a cutout of the King--over the lagoon, through the lobby, into a hotel room and to the wedding chapel.
For the most part, the stories stopped on September 11, 1992, because when Iniki set her eye on the island, the Coco Palms evacuated. And never re-opened. Now, the same stories are recycled—and no doubt, embellished.
Jasper says the hurricane damage was minimal and localized to the roof of the lobby. The Chinese owners claimed devastating damage. Their insurance company said it was neglect in the years before Iniki. They debated. And argued. As the rest of the island re-built, the beloved hotel sat empty. Salt coated the windows. Rust corroded everything. Roof shingles fell away. No doubt, termites moved in, along with a few squatters over the years. Mold grew. Weeds grew. Coconuts fell from the famous grove in the back. If no one was there to hear them, did the coconuts thud when they landed?
Bob Jasper is a craggy-faced and sometimes downright cranky guy who is the first to laugh at himself. That is if he isn’t catching you burning a camp fire in the Coco Palms lobby. Or trying to steal copper pipe from the hotel’s walls. Or sawing down a chandelier. Or, heaven forbid, peeling off one-inch-by-one-inch pieces of 24-karat-gold-painted bathroom tiles in Elvis’ Bungalow 56, like I thought about doing when I toured last week. Or considering how to remove the giant clamshell sink in one of the hotel room’s bathroom.
Jasper seems to be the only one who holds the key to the Coco Palms these days, literally and figuratively. He’s the guy the media calls when they want to do a story on the 20th anniversary of Iniki and the Coco Palms. He’s the guy they call when they catch wind that the Coco Palms is about to be sold again, as The Garden Island reported a few weeks back. Jasper says the reporters got the story wrong, that the deal fell out of escrow the day the story ran, but that another buyer is interested. After 20 years, there’s a bit of urgency these days, as the construction permits of the current owner—who threw in the towel on their re-building plans when the economy tanked in 2008—expire in January 2013.
Here’s the thing. I don’t want to see the place re-built. I know. I know. It’s not safe. There are public health issues. Crime issues. It’s a blight to the island. Blah. Blah. Blah. But there are rich stories that can only be imagined by standing in the ruins. Any renovation, no matter how respectful and exacting to the original kitschy Coco Palms design—there’s a GIANT faux clamshell hanging from the ceiling, for goodness sake--will eliminate the charm of the place that evokes such fond memories of a certain, bygone era of Kauai. The cleanliness and perfection of a re-built Coco Palms will jettison the use of our imagination, where these wonderful stories reside today. A re-built Coco Palms will be just that—re-constructed. An imitation. Too much time has passed.
Yes, I'm being illogical. Nostaligic. I admit to it all. But the place has a charm that will enrapture anyone.
There are other things, too. Since the hotel closed, other interests have come to light. Like the nearby Hawaiian burial grounds. The wetlands. The fishpond, which in 2009 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The land under and around the Coco Palms is loaded with culturally significant sites.
The entire area deserves preserving, and the Coco Palms deserves recognition. Most people agree with that. It seems the right solution hasn’t presented itself. Yet. But we people are amazing creatures. I believe in that, and I am sure we’ll come up with something spectacular for the Coco Palms. I just wonder what it will be.