When Valencia Lakes resident Harry Ross took off for his Hawaiian vacation that sunny fall day in 1992, he never dreamed that he was about to embark on the most memorable (and terrifying) adventure of his life. Twenty-three years later, he still expresses awe when he describes being caught in the clutches of Iniki, the strongest and most destructive hurricane to ever impact the Eastern Pacific.
“You just never expect that it could happen to you,” said Ross. “But there we were, with the hurricane heading straight toward us, and we had to figure out what to do to survive.”
Ross called upon his wits to try and come up with a plan. “I was listening and watching how the government safety officials were handling it. All those things we had learned to prepare for disasters as kids (growing up in Illinois) came rushing back to my mind.”
With only a few hours to prepare, Ross struggled to find the best way to protect himself and his family. “We were told that, during the night, the hurricane had taken a very unusual and dramatic turn, and was now on a path headed directly our way.”
Safety officials first instructed hotel guests to go to a small schoolhouse in the area, then to a metal building that was a community college.
“I quickly saw that neither of those structures were good solutions,” said Ross. He said he sat down on the street curb and considered his options, finally coming up with what he felt was a better idea. “There was a hotel I’d heard about that was recently built near the airport. I thought the building would be modern and stronger than the older ones, so we decided to head there.”
Upon arriving at the hotel, Ross was surprised to learn that among the other guests being housed there was filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who was preparing for the final day of on-location shooting for the movie, Jurassic Park. Spielberg, along with 130 cast and crew members, including the stars of the film — Laura Dern, Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough — were preparing to wait out the storm with the rest of the guests in the ballroom of the hotel.
The eye of Iniki crossed the Kauai Coast just before 4 p.m. Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time on Sept. 11, 1992, battering the coast with winds of up to 145 miles per hour and gusts up to 175 miles per hour. The storm lived up to its name Iniki, which means “sharp and piercing winds” in Hawaiian, as it battered Kauai with ferocious winds and produced tides of up to three feet above normal. Iniki slammed into the south shore of Kauai, causing an estimated $1.8 billion in damage, killing six people, and injuring more than 1,000.
“The hotel ballroom shook like the Titanic,” remembers Ross. “They were yelling at Spielberg to get inside so they could board up the place. He was up on the roof with a photographer trying to get video of the storm.” Later the Jurassic Park’s film director would include footage from the storm in the final cut of the movie.
Arriving on the heels of Hurricane Andrew in Florida, Iniki was the most powerful hurricane to strike Hawaii in recorded history. It destroyed housing across the island, leaving more than 7,000 people homeless, and severely damaged tourist hotels and condominiums. A few were restored quickly, while others took several years to be rebuilt. One hotel — the Coco Palms Resort famous for Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii — never reopened.
“It really gave me an appreciation for the awesome power of nature, and a respect for the knowledge of what to do at a time like that,” said Ross, who recently came up with the idea for the Valencia Lakes Safety Awareness Day, that was held April 13. He credits his experience with Hurricane Iniki for giving him a lifelong interest in weather safety awareness and disaster preparedness.
The next morning, after Iniki subsided, said Ross, “We woke up to the most beautiful, clearest blue sky I had ever seen. The air was so pure, like the storm had blown everything clean in its path.”
Many on Kauai were relieved to have survived the worst of the Category 4 hurricane. Because Iniki knocked out electrical power for most of the island, communities held parties to consume perishable food from refrigerators and freezers.
Entertainers from all over the island, including the Honolulu Symphony and Graham Nash, who owns a home on the north shore of Kauai, provided free concerts to the victims.
“Hurricane Iniki changed my life,” said Ross. “It’s an experience I will never forget.”