By Léo Azambuja

Hardwater 2

From left to right, 1996 Hawaiian Triple Crown winner Kaipo Jaquias, Ironman finisher Eugene Ancheta and big-wave matador Kaeo Lopez keep Kealia Beach safe for locals and visitors.

The death of a 79-year-old visitor while snorkeling in Po‘ipu last month put a dark stain on Kaua‘i’s clean record for 2014 up until then.

The first two-and-a-half months of 2014 had mostly everyone who works with ocean-safety knocking on wood. There hadn’t been a single confirmed drowning on Kaua`i until the March 13 death, a sharp contrast from last year’s somber statistics of nearly one drowning a week in the first three months.

“At that time, we were in high-surf warnings, flash-flood warnings, so a lot of those (deaths) were under the conditions that were not safe,” Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau Executive Director Sue Kanoho said of last year’s winter.

When 2013 was over, 17 people had drowned on Kaua`i, most of them in the ocean and some in fresh water. The majority of them were visitors.

Kanoho said whenever a visitor dies on Kaua‘i, KVB offers help to the family of the deceased, which may include coordinating changes in flight schedules and hotel reservations.

Dr. Monty Downs, of the Emergency Room at Wilcox Memorial Hospital in Lihu‘e, said there have been an average of nine to 10 water-related deaths each year on Kaua‘i. But somehow, in 2012 there were only two ocean deaths, and two others died in freshwater.

“I thought, ‘Wow, we’re accomplishing something here, all the (ocean safety) programs are working,” he said. “Then last year we got creamed.’”

Downs said he has been “trying like hell” for 20 years to figure out how to cut the statistics in half, and he’s not sure if he will ever be able to achieve it.

But if it wasn’t for aggressive prevention efforts, it could get a lot worse. The numbers could easily jump to 30 deaths per year, he said.

In Fiscal Year 2013, county lifeguards performed 92,256 preventive actions and 472 rescues; in FY 2012, they did 95,660 preventive actions and 312 rescues; and in FY 2011, they had 92,138 preventive actions and 52 rescues, according to county officials.

Additionally, the Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association, a nonprofit dedicated to maximize ocean safety on the island, has continually supported prevention efforts.

“I know we’re saving plenty of families from getting crushed out there, so that’s the way I still feel good about the work we do,” said Downs, who is also the president of KLA.

Only five years ago, Downs and John Tyler, through KLA, started putting rescue tubes on unguarded beaches around the island. Downs and a crew of a handful of volunteers still keep replenishing vandalized tubes or installing them in new locations.

Today, there are about 200 tubes spread on Kaua`i’s beaches, according to Downs. In Polihale alone there are 24 tubes, he said.

Kanoho vouched for the tubes, saying they have made a “big difference.” She read letters and heard stories describing how they were used in several occasions.

The expansion of this “very successful initiative” was made possible after the state of Hawai‘i gave KLA permission to place the tubes on state beaches, according to county spokeswoman Sarah Blane.

She said KLA has also been working with the county to place safety signs at each county beach park. In 2011, KLA donated two jet skis, a rescue sled and a trailer to the Kaua`i Fire Department.

And then there is an ocean-safety loop video installed a year ago by the baggage claim areas at Lihu‘e Airport. The project was supported by the Rotary Club of Kapa‘a, according to Blane.

“I think it’s making people more aware, so I think if nothing else, it’s gotten people’s attention,” Kanoho said of the video.

The video instructs visitors how to avoid rogue waves, how to proceed in case of getting caught in a rip current, and more importantly, to swim only on lifeguarded beaches.

Still, besides the drowning in March, a massive swell in late January nearly claimed the lives of at least two people in the North Shore. A child was yanked from her mother’s arms in Lumahai, and bystanders jumped in the water to save him. In Ke‘e Beach, a rogue wave got the better of a senior citizen standing on the beach. An off-duty lifeguard sprinted to save the man.

There was also the death of a scuba diver in February, but county officials said the man suffered a heart attack while out of the water, so drowning was ruled out.

“I think it’s just a constant thing we need to stay on top of,” Kanoho said of education efforts, especially to visitors.

Blane said KFD is in the process of re-allocating a position to Ocean Safety Prevention and Education Officer, who would be dedicated to community education and prevention initiatives.

But a threat looms over the lifeguard tower at the popular Ke‘e Beach, two miles east of the unguarded and deadly Hanakapi‘ai Beach, which has claimed dozens of lives. Both are state beaches. Blane said the county is gearing up to lobby at the state Legislature to preserve liability protections for placing county lifeguards on state beaches, which is due to sunset this year if no action is taken.

“This would impact our ability to continue to provide lifeguard coverage at Ke‘e Beach,” said Blane.

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