Back in business in Hawaii

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The soggy carpeting has been thrown away, the damaged furniture discarded. The beaches are being rebuilt, and the landscaping redone. Hawaii continues to recover from the effects of the tsunami triggered by the 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, which, in turn, prompted President Obama to declare parts of the state federal disaster areas.

But the bigger question, some say, is whether the decrease in the number of Japanese visitors will cause a financial seismic shock that may prove more difficult to overcome for a state just beginning to recover from the recession.

The surging waters that struck Hawaii in early morning didn't cause serious injuries or deaths in the 50th state, but the tsunami did rack up $30.6 million in damage to businesses and homes on some of the islands, according to Gov. Neil Abercrombie's office. At Abercrombie's urging, Obama on April 8 declared parts of Hawaii, Maui and Oahu disaster areas, clearing the way for emergency federal funds to help with the cleanup.

The Big Island, no stranger to tsunamis (Hilo was hit in 1946 and 1960), suffered the most damage : Damage to the western part of the Big Island businesses was estimated at $13.5 million and $2.5 million to homes.

"It's a very tragic thing, first of all, but we're back to business almost as usual," said George Applegate, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau.

One notable exception: Kona Village Resort, which Travel & Leisure magazine once dubbed one of the world's most romantic hotels. The resort will remain closed at least through the end of 2011 after raging waters destroyed more than 20 trademark hale, or thatched-roof bungalows, sweeping most off their foundations. The Hale Moana and Hale Samoa restaurants, three bars, a reception area and the main office also were damaged by waves that pummeled the 82-acre oceanside resort on the Big Island.

"We have had a very loyal following for many years," said spokeswoman Karine Joret. "But we've had to cancel all of our reservations, weddings and family reunions for the rest of this year." Joret said damage and insurance assessments continued at the 45-year-old resort.

The Four Seasons Resort, about 1.6 miles from Kona Village, also evacuated guests and closed during the tsunami, plans to reopen April 30. The flooding damaged 12 of its 243 rooms, dredged sand farther inland to the resort's pools and gardens, and killed most of the grass. Repairs center on replanting grass, landscaping and reassembling the beach, said spokesman Brad Packer.

"Strangely enough, our beach will be a little bigger now, significantly enough that it will definitely be noticeable," Packer said.

He said that the resort could have opened earlier but that the company wanted to get the site "back to perfect" to meet expectations of luxury-seeking guests.

Resort staff also initially feared that pounding waves might have harmed or killed the 75 species of fish inside the King's Pond, a 1.8-million gallon lava rock aquarium where guests go snorkeling. The fish did fine, Packer said. "There are more fish in the pond now than before."

Other properties in the area were also affected but reopened relatively quickly. Water rushed through the lobby and into restaurant areas of King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel. After removing wet carpeting and damaged furniture, the hotel reopened in less than a week.

Debbie Baker, executive director of the Kailua Village Business Improvement District, said Big Island visitors probably wouldn't notice too many things amiss, especially because businesses and restaurants in the village had remained open.

"The roadway was flooded, and the asphalt buckled up along the sidewalk," she said. "Right now, it's the only physical scar you can still see."

Farther south, parts of the 182-acre Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, "the refuge of Honauhau," remain closed temporarily. The tsunami transformed the park's Royal Grounds, where Hawaii's chiefs once gathered, from a soft beach to a jumble of rocks, hard-packed dirt and mud. Eric Andersen, chief of interpretation, described the damage as aesthetic and fixable. Workers are restoring part of the park's beach — about the length of two football fields — that lost all its sand. At nearby Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, trails that closed immediately after the tsunami have reopened.

However, repairing physical damage may be one of Hawaii's easier problems to solve. The bigger issue is losing what the state projected would be $2 billion in revenues for 2011 from Japanese tourism.

Last month, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said it expected to see the number of visitors from Japan drop by 25% in March, 45% in April, 35% in May and 30% in June — bad news for a state already hit hard by the economic slump that begin in 2008 and leaves the state facing an estimated $1.3 billion deficit in the next two years.

The tourism authority acted swiftly to address those potential losses, particularly those resulting from Japan Airlines' decreased number of flights between Hawaii and Japan, where strong aftershocks and news that the seriousness of the problems at one of its nuclear plants rivaled those at Chernobyl. That 1986 reactor meltdown in the then-Soviet Union is considered the worst nuclear accident at a power-generating plant.

The Hawaiian Tourism Authority, aided by $3.06 million for support efforts, will work to try to increase visitor numbers from other markets, including North America, New Zealand, China and Korea.

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