Friday, February 1, 2002
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer
A giant pile of old tires, junk cars, rusted refrigerators, busted washing machines, forgotten oil drums and even a couple of old boats sit in an open area near a pristine beach in Hana, part of 100 tons of rubbish removed in an attempt to control the breeding areas of mosquitoes that carry dengue fever.
This rural Maui community is the epicenter of the state's dengue problem, and the cleanup here has been massive as the state moved aggressively to keep the disease from getting out of control and further hurting tourism and the entire state economy.
It's a fight that couldn't be won with money or technology, but one that had to be waged house by house, and yard by yard, with a little education and a lot of sweat by people who have risked their own exposure to get the job done.
The Emergency Environmental Workforce has played a significant role in that fight, and by all accounts, is doing a commendable job. But the impact of this unique state work program extends far beyond Hana and the dengue fight and into hundreds of families statewide who otherwise might be without jobs or income.
The emergency $1.5 million program was passed during last year's special legislative session, with particular emphasis placed on the needs in Hana, a community that has been devastated economically after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, dengue outbreak and roadwork that has slowed travel along the winding Hana Highway.
Statewide the program has put 215 laid-off or unemployed workers into temporary jobs to deal with everything from destroying mosquito breeding areas to eradicating invasive miconia plants to silencing tiny shrieking frogs. While the program lasts into April, a bill is being introduced at the Legislature to extend it.
"The idea was to do the equivalent of what had happened during the Depression with the Civilian Conservation Corps — keep people off unemployment and doing something useful," said University of Hawai'i botany professor David Duffy, unit leader of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit of the Research Corporation of UH that is overseeing the clean-up in Hana.
And it is here that the efforts of the workforce have been most visible.
"We've taken out about 400 tires, 38 washers, two boats, 8 refrigerators and about 11 vehicles," said Duffy, referring to the effort that began in earnest in December and will continue for several more months.
"The Department of Health didn't have the people to do this," he said. "So this is an extra resource. People might say, 'Why are you cleaning up the community for them? They should do it themselves.' Well, maybe they should. But the state can't afford to have dengue, so this is for the whole state so these mosquitoes don't have any place to breed."
Kimo Tolentino, who lost his job as a cook at the Hotel Hana-Maui, was one of the first of 50 Hana workers hired early in December. He had his first paycheck four days before Christmas, a welcome relief.
"In the beginning, we went house to house and looked for breeding sites and destroyed them," Tolentino said of the massive clean-up, in which a couple of workers themselves ended up contracting the disease from mosquito bites.
"We finally realized we needed to open up around the homes, cut down the trees and let the breeze blow through and get some sunlight."
Tom Ishii, state coordinator for the emergency workforce, said first priority was given to those tho had been laid off. "We tried to hire everyone who was unemployed in Hana," said Ishii. "A lot came from the hotel, even the front desk."
As clean-up crews move from house to house through remote Hana town, scouting out and destroying breeding places for mosquitoes and teaching residents how to keep yards under control, they have an unofficial scorecard of how they're doing — a "mosquito register."
"In some of those areas there are 130 mosquitoes on your arm in 10 minutes," said Ray Henderson, executive director of 'Ohana Makamae, the Hana family resource center overseeing the brush and rubbish clean-up throughout this picturesque corner of Maui.
But the numbers are diminishing, he said. "At Wananalua Church today we measured 12 mosquitoes on an arm in 10 minutes. When you move the brush and foliage, it dramatically diminishes the mosquito count."
Duffy said the mosquitoes are endlessly adaptable, "love little, dinky places" and are able to lay eggs in the tiniest damp place. "A tire is heaven," he said. "Their eggs can dry up and wait until it rains and then they can hatch — bang — and grow up real fast."
The latest dengue count puts the outbreak at 102 confirmed cases, with three new ones in Hana and one on O'ahu in the last week. The outbreak will only be considered over when there has been a span of six weeks without a new case, said Duffy.
Crews are now beginning a second sweep of the town, hitting about 20 homes a day. While clearing brush at Wananalua Church, said Tolentino, they discovered several hidden graves.
"We uncovered them and put stones around them so no one disrupts them anymore," said Tolentino, who moved from Wai'anae on O'ahu to Hana in 1986, but had moved his family to Oregon for a few years in the late 1990s.
The cooperation of county road crews and local residents has been important in moving the project forward, said Ishii. Half a dozen residents with pick-up trucks have thrown in with the county crew and their bulldozers to get the underbrush cut, piled and moved out. But it's also going to take county help to put all the latest junk into a landfill, he said.
"When dengue first appeared in a village about eight miles out, we started collecting all the junks and trash from the areas out there and spent almost 2,000 manhours hauling tires and junk cars to landfills," said Jimmy Perry, district supervisor for the Maui County Public Works Highway Division. "We were just waiting for this workforce to come aboard."
Perry's family is one of those struggling. He has a farm in the Wai'anapanapa area and his family has fruit stands on the road to the state park, which has been closed because of dengue cases in that area. But, with brush at the state park cleaned out and burned, the area is expected to reopen this week.
"We're thankful for the workforce and everyone working together," said Perry.
But as the crews move through the residential and outlying areas, they're finding junk that can defy them. One car had a banyan tree growing up through the middle.
"It was like an octopus," said Perry. "We cut the roots and removed the car in parts."
As the clean-up continues, Hana townspeople are trying to carry on with life, and put their hopes in tourists coming back by summer. But there have been indelible changes.
"When I first moved here nine months ago," said Ma'ti Khus, another emergency worker, "everyone was in flip-flops, bermudas and T-shirts. Now everyone wears shoes and socks, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. A lot of people in town never knew what size of shoe they wore."
Reach Beverly Creamer at email@example.com or 525-8013.
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