HONOLULU – Fearing another dam break like the one that killed as many as seven people earlier this week on Kauai, state officials invoked emergency authority Thursday to enter private property and inspect earthen dams across the state.
"There is an imminent peril to the public health, safety or welfare," the Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement as heavy rain rapidly filled reservoirs on the island. The state said dams "are being severely tested."
The Board of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees the department, gave the state attorney general and others authority to venture onto private land. Before the action, only state land officers could enter private property to inspect dams.
Heavy rain continued Thursday on Kauai, flooding low-lying areas. Some residents of Koloa, a small town on the island's south shore, were advised to evacuate and many roads, bridges and public parks were closed.
The state's action came as search teams continued to look for five people missing after a privately owned earthen dam burst two days before, unleashing a torrent of water that obliterated two houses. One body was found in a stream bed; another was discovered in debris washed out to sea.
Officials closely monitored two other dams on Kauai. The Army Corps of Engineers and national dam experts were inspecting both, and crews used pumps to try to control the water levels at one of the reservoirs.
Kauai has 73 dams — 60 of them on private property. Most are about a century old and were once used to irrigate sugar cane fields that have now been turned into housing tracts. Most of the dams are earthen structures.
While property owners are required to maintain dams, the state has not regularly monitored them. Land board chairman Peter Young said that due to a lack of resources, only one full-time and one part-time position are dedicated to inspecting dams.
Heavy rain had been falling for several days when the 1890s-era dam along the Kaloko Reservoir broke without warning, cutting a three-mile path of destruction to the sea.
The state has no inspection records on that dam, Young said.