Rockfall, road closure poses familiar struggle for East Maui

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Residents say it’s ‘the nature of living remote’ as cliffside repairs begin

An April 28 rockfall near Alelele Point on Hana Highway made the remote area of the road impassable. — MAUI COUNTY photo

When tumbling rocks blocked off a portion of Hana Highway near Kipahulu in late April, residents in East Maui prepared for yet another long period of limited access.

The rockfall made the cliffside unstable, obstructed the road and damaged a car, forcing the county to close about one mile of the roadway between Alelele and Lelekea bridges on May 10 and leaving East Maui residents with only one entry/exit point to the small towns of Hana, Kaupo and Kipahulu.a Domen said Tuesday. “The biggest problem for me, personally, is that we can’t get any mail, so we have to have our mail re-routed through Kula … I’ve lived here for over 40 years, so this is not the first and probably not the last time this will happen and we learn to live with it.”

Domen also runs Kaupo Store, which has been closed since the pandemic but has plans to reopen. If it were open today, she would be concerned about the reduction in foot traffic and business.

“It’s the nature of living remote and it’s a bummer,” she said. “It always affects us one way or the other.”

A road closed sign at St. James Church notifies motorists about the Alelele Point closure in remote East Maui. — MAUI COUNTY photo

She said some families were disappointed because they could not get to Hana town for Hana High School’s graduation ceremony.

But, for the most part, they haven’t seen too many changes to their daily lives.

“When you live off grid like we do, you try to be prepared for whatever happens and so it’s just kind of our lifestyle,” Domen added.

Last year in early May, heavy rains and strong winds caused landslides and road damage in East Maui, washing out part of the Lelekea stream bridge and closing multiple sections of Piilani Highway. Jonathan Starr, who resides in Kalepa, between Kaupo and Kipahulu, said at the time that the rains were unusually strong and there wasn’t much visibility.

On Tuesday, Starr said via phone that he could not speak to the current conditions of the area since he is out of town in the mountains of upstate New York, but pointed out that these types of big closures happen about every 10 to 15 years and that it’s part of the experience of living in such a remote area.

“I’m sure there will be more, you know, we’ve had the cliffs sort of slide away and the roads get undermined and we’ve had rocks come from above and close the road,” he said. “That’s part of the beauties of living out there, to experience the victories of nature.”

Previous road closures made it difficult for residents to get from Kaupo to Kipahulu or Hana. Sometimes, folks could walk through or get a bicycle through, Starr said.

“You live in a place that remote, you kind of have to appreciate it and take it in stride,” he added.

Roughly 1,500 tons of rock debris will need to be removed, a consultant said last week following an assessment of the area. Rock scaling is estimated to start June 8 and last about three weeks. The county selected Prometheus Construction Inc., which also did emergency slope repairs at Manawainui Gulch and Haiku Road last year, to carry out the $1.5 million project.

If drivers approach the barricade closure from either Hana/Kipahulu or from Kaupo/Kanaio, they will have to turn around. Visitors are encouraged to avoid individual trips and instead use group tours to help mitigate increased traffic congestion, the county has said.

Hana and Beyond, a locally owned and family-operated tour company, announced in May that its full-circle tour will not be available due to the unsafe road conditions. Instead, they will be offering the half-circle tour to Hana Town and back, with additional stops, which is safer and convenient for guests and residents, the company said.

“At the moment we are unable to fulfill the full route of our tours as advertised, but we understand the importance of minimizing visitor impacts in these affected areas and we do so by encouraging guided tours, as suggested by county officials,” said owner Charlie Ahuna, who was born and raised in Hana. “What has always been an issue are visitors traveling on their own who continue to approach these closed off areas and create safety hazards and we are taking a proactive approach in educating our visitors.”

There have been multiple road closures in previous years that have “definitely impacted all businesses” in Hana as well as tour companies, Ahuna said Tuesday.

Residents in the area have experienced even longer closures and limited access in the past — an earthquake that shook Hawaii island and East Maui in 2006 cut off the East Maui community, and it took years to fully replace a damaged bridge in the Kipahulu area.

Maui County, which hopes to fix the current issue more quickly, is holding three community meetings in Kaupo, Kipahulu and Hana this weekend to discuss the impacts of the emergency road closure at the Alelele Point area.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at