Living On the Wet Spot

Los Angeles Times
April 20, 2006
By Alex Tizon

WAIULUA, Hawaii – In the place where Albert Spencer lives, it is a waste of time to measure rainfall by the inch. From January through March, a total of 6 feet of water has poured onto his parcel in paradise. The rain falls in continuous misty sheets with occasional squalls as though someone had turned on a giant faucet. The air thickens with moisture. Palm leaves drip and dribble. Earth turns sloppy, and walking outdoors gets noisy.

An accounting teacher, the 61-year-old Spencer hears about rainy cities on the mainland. San Francisco made headlines after 8 inches of rain in March. That much precipitation can fall here in a single day — before breakfast. Seattle’s annual average of 36 inches could come over a single long weekend, and in these parts nobody would notice.

Yet the place where Spencer lives in upper Wailua, on the windward side of Kauai, can seem like a desert compared with another spot just a few miles west: the summit of Mt. Waialeale, in the center of the island.

For every foot of rain in Wailua, the mountain gets 4 or 5 feet. In March alone, Mt. Waialeale received nearly 8 feet of rain. The summit averages more than 45 feet a year, according to the National Weather Service. In 1982, it was deluged with a record 620 inches — almost 52 feet.

From his backyard, Spencer, the mountain’s closest neighbor, has an unobstructed view of what tourist pamphlets proclaim and many scientists confirm as the rainiest place on Earth. The title is disputed. But scientists agree that Mt. Waialeale is a perennial contender for the top spot.

During downpours, the cliffs below the summit spout waterfalls, which from a distance look like a string of long white ribbons fluttering in the wind. Waialeale (pronounced Why-ah-lay-AH-lay) is Hawaiian for “rippling waters.”

No one lives on the mountain. It is an extinct volcano that rises 5,148 feet, its summit a blade-like ridge that spends most of the year behind clouds. A few intrepid souls have scaled the peak, but most are daunted by the swampy biomass of tangled fern and vine and moss that has been known to swallow the occasional hiker like green quicksand.

The mountain sits at the heart of a forest reserve. The nearest homes lie along the Wailua River, about five miles from the summit. The Wailua Homesteads, made up of about 80 half-acre lots, looks and feels like a subdivision plopped down in the middle of a rain forest. Spencer and his wife live in the northwestern-most corner, in the last cul-de-sac, the last lot, the last house. They live closer than anyone to the mountain.

“Yes, I guess we do,” Spencer says casually.

When you’ve lived for nearly three decades next to the world’s ultimate wet spot, you gradually move away from awe and spend time on more practical matters, such as keeping water out of your house. Rivulets can quickly turn into rivers. One such river often skirts their house and runs between two banana groves in their front yard before spilling onto the driveway. During dry times, Spencer fixes cracks on the roof and checks the vapor barriers under his floors. More than most human beings on the globe, he keeps a vigilant watch on the state of his gutters.

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On a recent Sunday afternoon, Spencer washes his car in the driveway. He is tall and lanky with thinning gray hair and shaggy eyebrows that curl toward his eyes like shades. It rained earlier in the day, and it’s sprinkling now. Living here means being oblivious to low levels of wetness. It also helps during the rinse phase.

Spencer says he wants the car clean before his wife, Betty, comes home from the mainland tomorrow afternoon. She’s been visiting relatives. Behind him, shrouded by foliage, sits a gray and white 2,100-square-foot rambler that he and Betty designed and built by hand. It took them five years. They pounded every nail, caulked every seam. They put in lots of vents and windows for good airflow to prevent mold and mildew. Most important, they made sure the land was graded so that rain flowed away from the house and not — as in the case of a few unfortunate neighbors — toward it.

Originally from New Jersey, Albert Spencer first came to Hawaii in the early 1970s while in the Air Force. Soon after, he and Betty, an elementary school teacher, moved to Kauai and bought their Wailua property for $40,000. They liked the spot because it was cooler and lusher than the coastal areas.

“We knew it was wet. We didn’t how wet,” Spencer says, soaping up the hood and windshield of his not-so-new Ford Taurus. This year was wetter than any in his memory.

Kauai, the state’s northernmost island, was under a continual downpour for more than 40 days starting in mid-February and lasting through March. Sporadic rains have continued through April. Precipitation records were broken all over the island, and floods and mudslides have ruined entire neighborhoods. On March 14, a century-old earthen dam about 10 miles north of Wailua — built during plantation days — overflowed and burst, unleashing 300 million gallons of water from the Kaloko Reservoir. The torrent killed seven people. On Mt. Waialeale, waterfalls sprang up in new places, surprising many of the island’s 60,000 residents.

What is it about this mountain that makes it such a rain magnet? Nature writer Bruce Barcott, in a written account of his climb to the summit, described the mountain as “a diabolically perfect weather machine.” It’s surrounded by moist air from the Pacific Ocean. The mountain’s size and shape make it perfect for catching trade winds from the east. These winds, which blow 250 days of the year, are funneled into the mountain’s steep crater.

The breezes rise to 5,000 feet, the ideal elevation for moisture to condense into rain clouds. Most of the water descends on the island’s eastern, or windward, half. The western, or leeward, side stays considerably drier.

Meteorologists say the title of “rainiest spot on Earth” is a fluid designation because weather patterns around the globe fluctuate so unpredictably. Guinness World Records cites Mawsynram in northeastern India as the title-holder with an average annual rainfall of about 39 feet.

But scientists say it depends which years are used to come up with an average. In the two decades before 1970, Waialeale was much wetter than in the three decades since, says Pao-Shin Chu, a meteorologist at the University of Hawaii. Before 1970, there was little argument that Waialeale was the rainiest place. Waialeale appears to be entering a new cycle of wetter weather.

The difference in rainfall between Mawsynram and Waialeale is as minuscule as “a gnat’s eyelash,” says Hawaii meteorologist Tom Schroeder. The numbers are so close and so squishy that either place — as well as another spot in India and two in Colombia — could hold the title on any given year.

In any case, no one is rushing to tear down the weather-beaten sign near the mountain’s summit that proclaims categorically: “MT. WAIALEALE. THE WETTEST SPOT ON EARTH.” It’s held up on a leaning pole that has been buffeted for years by storms and appears one gust away from toppling.

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Spencer is about done with the car. Good thing, because darker, more ominous clouds appear to be moving in. The drizzle could turn into a downpour any second. It’s a concession made early by those who decide to live here: Any outdoor activity could be, most likely will be, interrupted by rain. Stepping inside gets to be as instinctual as flipping up a jacket hood. Tarps are ubiquitous. Cultivating indoor hobbies helps to pass the time. When the dampness gets unbearable, it’s a 10-minute drive to the much drier, much warmer lower Wailua or Kapaa on the coast. (The island is only 32 miles wide.)

Spencer turns off the hose and starts ambling around his house to the backyard. “Come on back,” he says. “Come look.” The yard is a tropical garden of grass and fruit trees with leaves of every shade of green. The air smells faintly sweet, like a freshly cut papaya, and the ground gives like a sponge, every step a sloppy sinking into soil. Vines and leafy branches form sections of lush canopy, everything so moist and alive. This is what the rain feeds. And this, Spencer says, is why it’s worth putting up with it.

Beyond their private jungle stretches the forest preserve, and past that loom the knife-like ridges that mark the final ascent to Mt. Waialeale. For as long as the Spencers have lived here, the mountain has remained enigmatic.

You can count on fingers and toes the number of days each year when the clouds part to offer a clear view of the summit. Most days, like today, it is shrouded in cloud cover that lightens with the passing of the sun; the pinnacle peeks around but never stays visible long enough to be completely known. The secret to being happy here, Spencer says, is “to figure out how to live with nature and not work against it, because you’re never going to win. You work with the water. You let it go where it wants to go. You do what you can to direct it.”

At the end of April, the rainy season will have passed, and the island will begin to bask in the steady sunshine that draws so many mainlanders. Spencer will plant a crop of vegetables. The peace and relatively dry weather lasts for about a month. Then, on June 1, hurricane season begins.